20 OCTOBER 2014

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Article from BTNews 20 OCTOBER 2014

COMMENT: UK Airport Policy - is the mood changing

Laurie Price was for eight years the civil airline consultant to the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Transport and is the Aviation Adviser to the UK House of Commons All Party Aviation Group.  He is a regular contributor to  Business Travel News.  Laurie sees a change in the government attitude to the world of airline operations.  He is also of the view that the civil use of RAF Northolt would be of real value to the regions giving back their air links to London.  This COMMENT serves as a nice warm up for the Airport Operators Association conference 10/11 November. 

With Sir Howard Davies having firmly rejected proposals for the development of a new airport in the Thames Estuary, the Airports Commission is faced with the choice of recommending the development of new runway capacity at the Heathrow hub or Gatwick when he reports to Government next Spring.

In reality we need two new runways in the South East to provide operational resilience, reduce block times when some have increased by 50% in the interests of maximising use of existing runways over the last 30 years and provide for growth. 

Planning on an assumption of using runways to 100% of theoretical capacity is not the way forward.  We need one first at Heathrow to allow the hub and its unique global connectivity to be maintained and develop and allow those UK regional routes that have lost connections to Heathrow to be regained.  We also need one at Gatwick to allow it to grow, operate more effectively to reduce queuing, holding and go-arounds and serve its market segment.  Not to become a second, split hub; a policy that despite positive Government action, was tried and failed in the 1970s and 80s.  The reality is it is airlines not airports that compete for passengers and shippers.  

What we don’t yet have is the essential Government and cross party consensus and commitment to new runways.  That has been achieved for High Speed 2 and new port development, when the potential return to the economy from new runways would be significant.  

Yet at the Conservative Party Conference, the Chancellor, Rt Hon George Osborne MP, said in his speech: “This country has spent forty years failing to take a decision about building a new runway in the South East of England.  There are always one hundred reasons to stick with the past, but we need to choose the future.”  His colleague the Skills Minister Nick Boles MP told a meeting:  “We should all put our hands in the fire…and say we will do what Davies and his Commission recommend, come hell or high water.”

The previous week the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls MP, told his Conference: “Whatever the outcome of the Howard Davies review into airport capacity, we must resolve to finally make a decision on airport capacity in London and the South East – expanding capacity while taking into account the environmental impact.  No more kicking into the long-grass, but taking the right decisions for Britain’s long-term future.”  Whilst the Shadow Transport Secretary, Mary Creagh MP, said: "More airport capacity is vital to Britain’s economic success.  The next Labour Government will make a swift decision on airport expansion in the national interest."

The leadership of the Liberal Democrats, many of whose MPs represent peripheral regional constituencies who rely on air services, recognised the need to develop new runway capacity in the sustainable way proposed by the industry.  Nick Clegg said:  “I do happen to think the environmental impact can be consistent with some form of airport expansion given the rapid improvement in environmental performance of modern aircraft.”   Ed Davey MP, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said "What we’re saying is the environmental criteria we have always had may well be able to allow expansion.”   That seems to be the Liberal Democrats policy.

There is already a cross party report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Aviation of August 2012 into “Aviation Policy Air Passenger Duty” which advocated the development of a new runway at Heathrow and suggested use of RAF Northolt’s existing runway only 4 miles north of Heathrow more effectively in the interim particularly to reconnect the UK regions to Heathrow.  Far better than connecting via Gatwick, 40 congested M25 miles away as many such passengers are currently forced to do.

The Commons Transport Select Committee has also suggested that a third runway is one of two answers to the SE capacity problem. 

If consensus is growing then that needs to recognise and support what we do for the next 15 years before any new runway capacity becomes available.

For Heathrow, that means either use of mixed mode and / or use of Northolt (NHT) as a joint civil military airport, which could be up and running in less than six months and would show Government commitment to the regions. 

NHT satisfies the ‘no new runway’ policy, would be 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 relieves Heathrow.  It also adds revenue to the local community and council.  Just like Stansted no government money is involved either.  There is no additional noise the Embraer 190 and Bombardier Q400 are even quieter than the Dash 7 that opened up London City.  These aircraft are quieter than many of the 12,000 executive jets allowed to use Northolt today and by substituting Business aviation for regional scheduled services there would be no more movements than currently permitted and safely integrated into the ATC system.

From an airline point of view it would be (initially) a West London version of LCY, for domestic traffic plus the Isle of Man and Channel Islands. There is an Underground station close by the present entrance and the A40 runs parallel to the runway.  There is a site for a ‘quick built’ civil enclave terminal building as per Southend and ample parking.

Several analyses have indicated strong market potential.  The military and true VIP slots could be retained and executive use restricted as per LCY.

In financial terms moving from a solely military operation to joint use should not be significant.  The aerodrome operational oversight rules under a Military Protocol are different, but regular current users include the Royal Family and Ministers, so should not pose an issue for substitute scheduled operations and not prove insurmountable.  The existing 1687 metre runway can be used or part of it as per London City at 1199 metres but that would limit the aircraft types to Embraer E series and Bombardier CSeries jets, and Q400 or ATR.  The AVRO/BAe 146 types already use the airport including the Queen's Squadron.

Delivering the vision just needs a policy consensus, the green shoots of which may just be evident.

Laurie Price

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