There are no easy options when it comes to airport expansion. A fiercely emotive issue, there are few policy debates that have caused more controversy than the future of hub airport capacity in this country.
The choice to me is clear. The world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting and Britain needs to be connected to the growing markets of the East and South. If we are not, then we will fall behind our global competitors and lose the growth opportunities we so desperately need.
Only a hub airport can provide the scale of connectivity needed to keep the UK linked into the global economy. Our only hub airport, Heathrow, is full and it is naïve to pretend that isn’t hurting our economy. UK businesses trade 20 times more with emerging markets with daily flights than those with less frequent or no direct service.
There are 1,532 more flights annually to the three largest cities in mainland China from Paris and Frankfurt than there are from Heathrow. The UK’s connectivity gap with China has also widened in terms of destinations. UK businesses cannot fly directly to seven destinations in mainland China – Chengdu, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Xiamen, Nanjing, Shenyang or Qingdao – that are now served by other European hubs [www.heathrowairport.com/hub]. Doing nothing is not an option.
So what can we do? As a Manchester MP, you will not be surprised to hear that I like the idea of making more use of our regional airports. In my opinion, the more people that can fly direct from their local airport, the better. But the reality is that while regional airports have a vital role to play in providing international connectivity, they are not hub airports. They operate differently and for this reason cannot be a substitute for Heathrow.
Take Manchester for example. We have a great airport, with lots of spare capacity to take additional flights. But we don’t have any direct flights to China. Why? The simple reason is there is currently not enough demand from the Manchester area to make a regular flight to Beijing or other Chinese cities profitable.
Heathrow is able to support regular flights to China because it is a hub airport. While there might not be enough demand in London, Manchester or Newcastle to support a daily direct flight to Beijing, airlines can pool demand from all over the UK and Europe at Heathrow. This allows them to fill up aircraft and keep a daily flight to Beijing profitable.
It is for this reason that Heathrow serves 75 destinations world-wide that are not served by any other UK airport and why 75% of UK long-haul flights depart from Heathrow [www.heathrowairport.com/hub]. Growth at regional airports is important but it is not a solution to Heathrow’s capacity constraints.
The so-called ‘Heathwick’ idea is another red herring in this debate. Linking Heathrow and Gatwick by rail is simply not viable. The best European hubs can transfer passengers between aircraft in 45 minutes. ‘Heathwick’ would see passengers spending 100 minutes moving between planes. Why would we spend billions building a solution that would be commercially uncompetitive and operationally difficult?
Then there is the Thames Estuary. Superficially appealing, it faces some major challenges, not least the cost and timescales involved. It would also require the closure of Heathrow.
This is not a popular idea but it is reality. The Canadians tried to run two hubs in one city in Montreal and failed miserably. The same happened in Italy, where the new airport at Malpensa became an expensive white elephant. If we are going to go down the route of building somewhere new, we have to be realistic about what happens to Heathrow.
As for Heathrow, there is no doubt that it faces its own challenges when it comes to expansion. Noise is the airport’s biggest drawback, as well as pollution, but aircraft are getting quieter and cleaner. A combination of new technology and improved operating procedures could see the noise impact at Heathrow improve and additional mitigation measures like insulation and double-glazing could also help.
And let us not forget that the other options for airport expansion would face noise problems too. A 24-hour Thames Estuary airport would hardly be a silent operation. Heathrow has published a report today which suggests 12 criteria, including noise, air quality, surface access, competitiveness, commercial viability and airspace design, against which the different options for future hub capacity could be assessed. This sounds like an eminently sensible idea to me. Let’s have all the options on the table and assess each rationally and objectively on their merits.
We need to move the debate on from pie-in-the-sky ideas to sensible and achievable solutions. None of the options is easy but it is the job of Government to take difficult decisions in the long-term interest of the country. On this basis, we need the Airports Commission to report sooner than 2015. It is time to get real on airports policy.