UK’s smaller airports want proper government policy to boost their expansion

An article in Airport Technology makes the case for better UK aviation policy, to boost the regional airports and the smaller London airports – rather than focus only on Heathrow and Gatwick.  Airports like Luton, Stansted, Birmingham and London City do not want their interests overlooked, in the ill-advised focus just on “which of two sites to put a new runway.” Speaking on this at the Airport Design, Development and Engineering conference, representatives from the 4 airports reinforced their call on the government to support their expansion. They agreed that a better civil aviation policy is needed in order to build infrastructure, improve connectivity to and from the airports and “stay competitive in the fast growing, ultra-connected global aviation market.” But a lot of the usual PR and spin were trotted out, and the article repeats so many of the standard claims – that airports are vital for business growth; ignoring the tourism deficit caused by ever more UK residents taking cheap overseas leisure trips; ignoring the recent growth which is largely just making up the huge declines during the recession years; making unsound comparison with China; and entirely ignoring any adverse impacts of aviation on the populations overflown, or negatively affected by the industry.  There is, of course, no mention of carbon emissions. The industry is great at self-promotion, and only seeing one side of an argument. [Comments by AW on the text below, showing up some of these bits of spin].



Forget Gatwick and Heathrow: UK’s smaller airports seek expansion

6 June 2016

By Eva Grey (Airport Technology)


Beyond the Heathrow versus Gatwick debate, UK’s other airports are experiencing unforeseen growth in their passenger numbers and are struggling to keep up with demand. During a panel discussion at the Airport Design, Development and Engineering conference, representatives from Birmingham, Stansted, Luton and City airports reinforced their call on the government to support their expansion.

While the country is growing increasingly impatient with the government’s hesitation on whether to deliver a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick, [because what the country has been told, probably wrongly, is the issue – for the benefit of the owners of these two airports.  AW comment]  the rest of the UK’s airports are feeling left out in dealing with an unprecedented level of growth. [That level of growth, recovering after the recession back to levels of around 2008 – scarcely above it. See 2005 – 2015 Air Transport Movements (= commercial flights) AW comment]. 

Dealing with interim passenger capacity is “a nice problem to have”, as chief executive officer at London City Airport Declan Collier put it, but it’s nonetheless a problem that has perplexed the government for the past fifty years.

Speaking on this issue at the Airports conference organised by New Civil Engineer, a panel of representatives of four of UK’s biggest airports agreed that a better civil aviation policy is desperately needed in order to build infrastructure, improve connectivity to and from the airports and stay competitive in the fast growing, ultra-connected global aviation market.

UK business demands extra airport capacity

“The UK economy and UK business wants this capacity tomorrow morning,” said chief executive office at Birmingham Airport Paul Kehoe. “It needs to connect the world blooming out there and we need to connect to that now, not wait 14 years.”  [What the UK economy wants first is more successful companies that can export.  They do not need an airport first. Airports don’t create successful businesses in the wider economy.  Causation and correlation are not the same thing. Lots of demand fills airports. There is quite enough airport capacity for any current business needs.  AW comment].

“That’s a disgrace, an absolute disgrace for the UK and we should be ashamed of ourselves.” [Airports, naturally, will believe that their existence is vital for the wider economy – but the reality may be different. Politicians need to consider very carefully the spin put out by the aviation industry. They are great self promoters. AW comment]

Birmingham Airport is just one of the hubs [it is not a hub, in the technical sense – lazy journalists often use this word, in their attempt not to use the word “airport” twice in the same sentence. AW comment]  that have seen great growth. Over the past two years, it has added five new long-haul routes to reach today’s total of eight, and “that growth is just continuing as people want to connect eastwards,” Kehoe says.

By the time the new runway will be operational at either Heathrow or Gatwick, around 2030 or 2035, other major infrastructure project such as HS2 and Hinkley Point will be here.

“The UK economy and UK business wants this capacity tomorrow morning.”  [The reality is the UK’s tourism deficit was about £16.9 billion in 2015, and likely to be higher this year, from ONS July figures. This is the excess of the money spent by UK residents taking trips abroad, over the amount spent by overseas residents taking trips to the UK.  It is largely due to air travel, as most trips are taken by air, other than those to places nearby in Europe. AW comment].

“When we get to 2030, Birmingham airport will have taken advantage of the market, making significant investments and rewards for our shareholders, but more importantly, for the local community we live in, the Midlands engine which is so desperate to connect with the world.”

Echoing Kehoe’s views, engineering services director for Manchester Airports Group Paul Willis reiterated that there are other airports in the UK that are delivering demand both Heathrow and Gatwick can’t constrain.

For example, London Stansted has 50% spare capacity that could be used and Willis approximates that around 40% of the possible demand that could be achieved in the London area could come through Stansted.

“We’ve got spare capacity and we want to introduce more long-haul flights to Stansted,” he says.

Better airport connectivity as a necessity for growth

Addressing the government’s aviation policy, Willis argues that everyone’s looking long term but missing short term fixes that need to be done, such as rail connectivity.

“The thing that frustrates us with the government [is that] they’re all focused on runways and concrete, whether that’s at Heathrow or Gatwick – and that’s not the only way that we can enlarge the catchment area and also drive capacity through our airports.”

Willis also called on the government to impose a tax break on Air Passenger Duty, an element that is “holding back” the airport from adding extra long-haul routes and expanding.

Possibly the best example of how airports were caught off guard by increased demand came from London Luton, which now has a physical capacity of 12.6 million passengers.

But back in August 2014, when Luton received planning permission to grow their capacity to 18 million, the airport expected to reach that level of demand no sooner than 2027. But the reality is that Luton will “be full” in 2019, nearly seven years before their prognosis. [Well, it might. And then again, it might not….]

“You can take two things from that: firstly, our forecasting skills are crap,” chief executive officer Nick Barton jokes. “The other thing is that London as a destination is probably the best global prospect in the world at the moment and tragically, we don’t have the physical capacity to support the growth of this great city”.

UK’s big infrastructure projects hinged on indecision

Luton is taking steps towards accommodating its future passengers by introducing a rail link which will be fully operational in 2020.

London City Airport has also embarked on a £340 million expansion plan ahead of it turning 30 years old next year. It is currently handling 5 million passengers out of a terminal originally built to handle only 3 million.  [And being in a totally inappropriate location for a busy airport, so close to the centre of London, it is causing huge unhappiness and unacceptable noise for thousands of residents.  AW comment]

Referencing a £200 million expansion turned down by former mayor Boris Johnson in 2015, London City’s Collier said: “The tragedy is that there is a huge demand for passengers to come to London, we have the ability to deliver more capacity and yet we struggle to get the permission to do it for the past two years.”  [And can you wonder why that is?  Looking at its location?  The industry loves to ignore inconvenient facts, like impact on communities.  AW comment]

He pointed out that in the time it will take to have the new runway in London, the major cities around the world will deliver 50 new runways, facilitating capacity for an extra 1 billion passengers. China alone, Collier says, will deliver 17 new airports over the next ten years.  [The reason for that is China is a newly rich country, that has only joined the top ranks of the aviation sector relatively recently.  Its aviation is growing hugely, and there is a massive population. By contrast, the UK has a very mature aviation industry. We have been flying, in huge numbers, for decades. We have a large number of airports already. AW comment].

“It’s a struggle that as a country we have to address. Just imagine how great Great Britain would be if we weren’t struggling with our inability to deliver major infrastructure projects and facilitate a planning system that would deliver those projects,” he said.