30 OCTOBER 2017

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Article from BTNews 30 OCTOBER 2017

ON THE SOAPBOX: Karen Dee, Airport Operators Association

The AOA's annual conference starts today in London. Here, the organisation's chief executive, Karen Dee, gives the background to what promises to be a lively and informative two days.  

The AOA annual conference comes at an important moment for the industry. We have a number of important decisions ahead of us that will shape how we connect to the world in the future. From Brexit to airspace modernisation and the Aviation Strategy, a line-up of excellent speakers will discuss these and other issues today and tomorrow.

Domestically, the Aviation Strategy can be a great opportunity for airports and aviation. A public discussion on how we shape our future aviation sector, putting the needs and demands of leisure and business users of aviation at its centre, is very welcome. 

While government has increasingly recognised the vital role played by aviation as an enabler for the wider UK economy, this is a message that still needs to be heard more clearly in the wider debate. Getting the Aviation Strategy right will also be vital to our future prosperity as we leave the European Union.

As the AOA, our starting point is that UK airports are a success story, as we set out in our position paper on the Aviation Strategy that we have published today. Airports operate in a highly competitive environment and this has delivered tangible benefits for passengers and business alike: billions of pounds have been invested in facilities and new routes and services which have helped boost passenger demand – reaching record levels across UK airports this summer  and supported trade and investment. 

For us, the focus is then on how we enable airports and aviation more widely to continue to meet that record demand – demand which is only going to grow. The Aviation Strategy should set out a clear vision how we are going to deliver the connectivity the country needs to create jobs and growth across the UK. 

This will require answers to some important questions: For example, how will we as a country create the necessary infrastructure to meet that demand and meet it sustainably? What about the surface access links that might be required?

Another example is the nature of our existing connectivity: do we connect to the right places? VisitBritain has outlined that Germany has better connectivity to South Korea, Japan, China and Brazil than the UK does. Creating connections to these growth markets will require the right Government policies on Air Passenger Duty, visas and borders. 

Ultimately, the Strategy needs to be more than simply a statement of intent. Instead it must give industry the right tools to go and deliver that vision. One of our tests of the Aviation Strategy will be whether it demonstrates the Government’s commitment to maintaining the UK’s position as an outward-facing nation, helping to place the country’s economy on a secure footing. 

That is particularly necessary with the planned exit from the EU. As an industry, we know that most flights to and from UK airports connect us with other EU countries and with countries, like the USA and Canada, with which the EU has developed air services agreements. 

It is good to see senior ministers, like the chancellor Philip Hammond, recognise that once the UK leaves the EU, unless action is taken, those agreements would no longer apply and there would be no legal framework to fly to those destinations. 

We have received assurances in our meetings with the government that aviation is a priority. Yet as time presses on, there is growing concern at the impact this lack of certainty could have on the sector. 

Airlines and tour operators make their plans 12-18 months ahead, so we need to give travellers assurances as soon as possible. We have seen a recent announcement from Thomas Cook that operators are starting to adapt their terms and conditions to reflect this uncertainty. We would therefore urge the government and the EU to keep aviation at the top of their Brexit priorities so that we can ensure consumer confidence is not undermined. 

Lastly, improving connectivity and capacity will rely as much on improvements in the air as it will on the ground. Modernisation of our airspace is crucial not only to prevent major delays to flights in years to come, but also to help industry in its efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and noise. The government’s response to the airspace policy consultation, published last week, is a welcome next step to realising those benefits. 

Airspace is part of the UK’s critical infrastructure and modernising it will require strong and continued leadership from government on behalf of the whole country.  We, as airports, will play our part to deliver modernisation – not least by building support for change, particularly through working with communities to minimise aviation’s impact on them.

These are some of the challenges but also opportunities facing airports and aviation. The next two days at the AOA Annual Conference will set up the debate on how we rise to those challenges and grasp the opportunities. We hope to see you there.

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