13 MAY 2013


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Article from BTNews 13 MAY 2013


"Not in my backyard"

Business Travel News continues with its series of ON THE SOAPBOX SPECIALS putting forward different ideas regarding airport capacity which is being examined by the Airport Commission.  Malcolm Ginsberg – Editor in Chief, BTN, offers his views.

Followers of the Airports Commission’s timetable will note that the cut-off date for the latest submissions is next Friday 17 May entitled “Proposals for making the best use of existing capacity in the short and medium terms”.  Parliament’s Transport Committee has suggested that a third runway is the answer (see below).  BTN says that Northolt (NHT) could be up and running in less than two years, would show Government commitment to commercial aviation, and give breathing space.

Whatever happens there are two issues that are paramount.

Firstly, when the Commission reports after the 2015 election some people are not going to be happy.  It is impossible to satisfy everyone.  "Not in my backyard" is not good enough.  The result must be for the greater good.

Secondly, whatever is suggested by Sir Harold Davies’ expert panel it is the Prime Minister of the day who calls the shots.  Back in 1971 the Roskill Commission plumped for Cublington, north of Aylesbury, as the best site for a new UK hub airport, four to one.  The dissenter, Sir Colin Buchanan, later President of Friends of the Earth, gained the ear of the then PM, Edward Heath, persuading him that Maplin (Southend) was the answer.  The Government of Harold Wilson scrapped the scheme in 1974 for financial reasons.  Since then nothing!  The Cabinet of 2015 will be no different from any other executive board.  The leader usually gets his way.

In the short to medium term Business Travel News believes that Northolt Aerodrome, four miles to the north of Heathrow, on the A40, and close by Ruislip Gardens Underground station (Central Line) is the answer to the hub capacity problem by taking some of its short haul flights. 

It is true that the crisis is not quite as bad as some pundits would have us believe.  Heathrow continues to grow in terms of passenger numbers (unlike some of its major European competitors) and the average seat per aircraft is now up to 199.3 for March (OAG stats) with a 75.8% load factor.  A380s are replacing smaller aircraft and the load factor could reach 80% within a short time frame.  That would give a 10% capacity increase in say five years, more or less keeping pace with growth.  Add to that Gatwick’s potential and the under-utilised Stansted and in the short term the South East is OK.  With stable aircraft movements Heathrow’s other major problem, airfield capacity, can just about be resolved. 

All this means that the smaller aircraft need to be eliminated from Heathrow, frequent routes such as Edinburgh (16 return flights a day) reduced with capacity replaced by larger aircraft.  Heathrow thrives on connectivity.  Regional point-to-point traffic can use alternative airports.

Northolt is the answer to satisfy the Davies interim assessment.

NHT satisfies the ‘no new runway’ policy, it is cash positive for the Chancellor and deals with the Defence cost problem, involves no houses being knocked down, supports the regions with routes into London, and of course relieves Heathrow.  It also adds revenue to the local community and council.  Just like Stansted no government money is involved either.  Yes there will be very limited additional noise but the Embraer 190 and Bombardier Q400 are even quieter than the Dash 7 that opened up London City.  The airspace technical problems can be overcome.

BTN sees Northolt as a point-to-point operation.  Perhaps at a later date a monorail system could be introduced for hub traffic to the world’s busiest international airport.  It could revitalise domestic travel at a fraction the HS2 cost. 

A parallel can be drawn with London City Airport (LCY).  It was a brown field site in a rundown industrial and port area 30 years ago.  Brymon Airways, landing on Herons Quay, Sunday 27 June 1992, changed all that.  The idea of an airport was opposed by some, led by Ken Livingstone.  Mr Livingstone later, in an about-turn, was to open the highly successful Docklands Light Railway (DLR) extension to the airport.  Take away London City today and there would be uproar. 

From an airline point of view it would be (initially) a West London version of LCY, point-to-point, with strong inbound traffic (and European airports within one hour’s flight time) and outbound routes to the UK regions.  As noted there is an Underground station close by the present entrance/guardhouse and the A40 runs parallel to the runway.  Several analyses have indicated strong market potential.

For the investor/developer half the land could be turned over to housing and either the existing runway used (1687m), or part of it as per London City (1199m) limiting the aircraft types somewhat. 

In financial terms turning the military operation into a civil airport is not mega money.  Yes, the aerodrome rules are different, but given enthusiasm to drive the project forward none of the technical problems are insurmountable.  Stobart proved how quickly you can put up a 2m-passenger terminal at Southend and the other infrastructure work is minimal.  NATS has said that if it is Government policy to initiate the airport any air traffic difficulties can be solved.  There is plenty of separation in the technological age.  Just take a look at Los Angeles International with its four parallel runways. 

Davies has to have the courage to say yes to Northolt and get it under way.  In summer 2015 its full report will be published.  By then NHT (which in 1946 was Europe’s busiest commercial airport) will hopefully be up and running and places such as Carlisle, Plymouth and Teesside will have air connections to London.  They sorely need them.  And Heathrow will have breathing space.

Please see also:

Mike Carrivick for the Progressive Airline Group www.btnews.co.uk/article/6208
Jock Lowe – Independent ex-BA Flight Ops Director www.btnews.co.uk/article/6216
Colin Matthews – Chief Executive Heathrow Airport Ltd www.btnews.co.uk/article/5984
Daniel Moylan for The Mayor of London www.btnews.co.uk/article/6145
John Redwood – Independently minded Conservative MP for Wokingham (near Reading) www.btnews.co.uk/article/6039

The Maplin Story www.btnews.co.uk/article/4405

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