The Critical List No 2: UK regional airports diverting aviation policy
UK regional airports could deliver economic, time, cost, emissions and congestion benefits. But Government thinking seems stuck in traffic on the M25.
The Department for Transport (DfT) published a “Draft Framework” outlining the government’s aviation strategy in July 2012 and has been touring the country (by train) talking and listening to airport managements and local business representatives for the past few months.
The DfT presentation of the Government’s draft framework is, by their own admission, somewhat “London centric”. This is not surprising as the policy itself is pretty focussed on the south east of England. The seemingly endless debate focuses on whether or not Heathrow should get another runway, and/or whether Boris Johnson’s plan to build a whole new meg-hub on a man-made island in the Thames estuary is just a bit of political grandstanding, and/or which of the “London” airports should pick up the extra traffic if the government’s opposition to more tarmac at Heathrow persists and Boris’ fantasy doesn’t.
Not surprisingly and with good reason the regional airports are less than amused. They have another plan for UK aviation and it makes a great deal of sense. In short, they say, let’s make UK the hub for Europe and beyond. The whole country, not just London. Focussing on London, they say, is not good for London and is not good for the regions and their airports.
Bristol Airport has just published a paper ‘Giving wings to airports across the UK’ which sets out five recommendations for Government policy which, if adopted, would deliver a combination of time, cost and emissions savings, while relieving congestion at London airports and help both the UK and the regional economies.
In summary the Bristol recommendations are as follows (with no apologies for the occasional interjection):
1 Carrot and Stick
Supporting the development and growth of regional airports is the ONLY sensible way to cope with the forecast growth in UK air passengers. Doing so would spread the benefits of improved connectivity more evenly across the UK. But proper use of existing excess capacity outside of London will only happen if the Government uses a combination of policy levers and fiscal measures. To stop local obstructionism these must include an explicit Government directive for specific growth proposals at airports in the regions.
2 Travelling to travel
Government should push hard for and provide support for short, medium and long-term improvements in surface access to airports outside London. This in itself will drive economic growth within the regions.
Rail and road links are key and considerations of rail and air services must be central to the assessment of the rail franchise replacement bids. (How can this not be already happening?) The scope of the DfT’s review of rail access to airports should be extended and widened to include road transport. (But how are the two connected? They’re not. That’s the problem!)
3 International Marketing
The Government’s tourism strategy should encourage international visitors to use airports in the regions as gateways to the UK. Proximity of regional attractions should be highlighted in marketing materials promoting the UK overseas.
Advanced passenger processing such as US pre-clearance and other innovative airport technology and process should be piloted and introduced in regional airports.
4 Buy Local and level the playing fields
Private and public sector organisations should be “encouraged” to favour and promote the use of airports in the region in which they are located. (Do they need to be “encouraged”? Apparently yes!)
Government also needs to sort out the anomaly whereby passengers on domestic flights linking far-flung regions of the UK pay double the tax of those making return trips to destinations in other European countries. (This can’t be right can it? The Government needs to fix this one by Christmas)
5 Government to work together with regional airports
The regulatory burden of red tape is preventing regional airports from being efficient and from developing properly. A joint task force should be set up to enable airports to work with Government to identify areas where red tape could be removed.
Meanwhile Birmingham Airport has been marshaling its figures for the long haul fight ahead.
Birmingham Airport claims to be a “strategic national asset” that, with some new thinking, can easily form part of the solution to the 'Heathrow Problem'. A cursory glance at the figures shows the validity of their claim.
There is existing spare capacity at Birmingham to take another 9 million passengers immediately and a further 21 million passengers with a planned runway extension, for which planning consent has already been given.
Euston is only 70 minutes from Birmingham Airport and this could be reduced to 59 minutes without major investment. Of course with the arrival of High Speed 2 (HS2), which does involved a pretty major investment, this will become 38 minutes.
Around 50% of the UK population is less than a two-hour drive from Birmingham. HS2 will have the effect of “placing Birmingham in ‘Zone 4’ of the London Underground.
Birmingham Airport says that “Even now the majority of Londoners could probably get to Birmingham as quickly as they could reach Heathrow's check-in desks. It just needs people to think about their journey in a new way, and not to be bound by old habits.”
They are right, but it is not just travellers who need to do a reality check before setting out for the airport. The people in the government need to think about air travel and the regions in a new way, and abandon their old “London centric” habit of thought.