Infrastructure in 2014: The battle for the skies takes off
Next year could see a “phoney war” over air capacity, as the options available are narrowed ahead of a 2015 decision.
Just a minute’s walk from the offices of business lobby group London First, Admiral Nelson towers over Trafalgar Square, his stony glare a reminder of the UK’s naval dominance in an era when maritime trade was the basis of a vast British Empire.
But in London First’s office a more contemporary war is being fought. For, while Nelson’s priority was the sea, London First is spearheading a battle for the skies. The group is the driving force behind Let Britain Fly, a campaign by businesses pushing for cross-party political support for increasing air capacity in London and the South East. Firms backing the campaign include 3i, Atkins, Sir Robert McAlpine, Vinci Construction UK and Jones Lang LaSalle.
This region will be the key battleground in 2014 as pro- and anti-airport expansion groups slug it out.
The head of the ongoing Airports Commission, Sir Howard Davies, has already backed new runways in the South East. The front runners are thought to be Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, with a Thames Estuary solution an outside possibility.
“Britain prides itself on being one of the world’s great trading nations,” says London First chief executive Baroness Jo Valentine. “Yet the last time we built a new full-length runway in the South East it was to launch bombing missions over Germany.”
Rivals have not been so sluggish: both Frankfurt Airport and Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport now have four runways, while Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has six. Since 1992, Heathrow’s capacity has grown 53%, while Frankfurt has grown 84%, Paris Charles de Gaulle 142% and Amsterdam Schiphol 160%.
“After decades of political inaction the issue of airports expansion is one whose time has finally come”
Jo Valentine, London First
However, despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth over this 50-year hiatus, it’s far from clear whether anything is going to change. The Airports Commission will imminently lay out its interim findings on where and how the UK’s airport capacity should be expanded, but no one is expecting any thunderbolts at this stage.
This begs the question of whether 2014 will amount to something of a “phoney war” in terms of air infrastructure, as politicians wait for the final report in summer 2015.
Whether phoney or not, Valentine says 2014 will be a vital period in the debate. “After decades of political inaction the issue of airports expansion is one whose time has finally come, not least because, if nothing is done, all of London’s airports will be at breaking point by the mid-2020s,” she says.
“With the Airports Commission set to report in 2015, next year will be key to making sure we lay the ground for concrete political action.”
This applies to both long- and short-term options. London First estimates it would take 10 years to get another runway built and potentially even longer to build a new hub airport.
Pro-expansion groups worry that, while this time ticks by, emerging economies will continue to grow and Britain’s competitors will being doing deals at the expense of the UK for the simple reason that those competitors are easier to reach.
This is why Let Britain Fly has focused on securing cross-party commitment for action following the findings of the Airports Commission, rather than on seeking to identify any one optimal location for expansion.
“The Airports Commission has the necessary time and expertise to consider each proposal on its own merits,” Valentine says. “Business shouldn’t be dogmatic about the particular solution at this stage, provided it can meet our economic needs. What we need is a proposal that is affordable, deliverable and commands political support.”
Just what Sir Howard Davies will plump for when his final report comes out is far from clear. But London First head of infrastructure policy David Leam says a close analysis of the pros and cons of key options will keep Sir Howard busy.
Key criteria include surface access needs, environmental impact, noise, property take and, of course, cost - particularly to the public purse.
“At the moment all the numbers come from the proponents themselves - even if they’ve been independently commissioned,” Leam says. “What policy makers need is to move to a comparison on a like-for-like basis so the competing claims of the key options can really be tested.”
He sees no reason why 2014 should become anything more than a period of frenzied manoeuvring.
“There has been some pressure to accelerate the timetable but I can’t see why any of the political leaders would want this particular hot potato to fall into their laps sooner than it has to,” Leam says.
The UK air capacity crunch
- More than 200M passengers go through UK airports every year, 134M through London
- All of London’s main airports are forecast to be full by the mid-2020s
- Heathrow is running at 98% capacity.
- Demand for flights in the UK is forecast to double by 2050 while demand for business flights is forecast to grow 80% by 2030
- London has no daily flights to 10 emerging economies, but 26 cities in those economies are served by daily flights from other European cities
- Britain has seen a fourfold increase in air travel in the last three decades
- In the last 20 years demand for London’s airports has grown 50%
Like all good campaigns there is an on-going battle for hearts and minds, which will be key to the outcome of the infrastructure debate. Of the issues noted by Leam, the fears of increased noise through more flights will be one of the uppermost in politicians’ minds.
London First recently released a report detailing how it believes that more flights can be compatible with a better quality of life for those under the flight path. At Heathrow, for example, between 1980 and 2006 the number of people affected by noise fell from 2M to around 250,000 despite a 75% growth in flights.
But the centrepiece of “More Flights, Less Noise” was the call to create a noise ombudsman for the protection of people living under flight paths.
“There is a basic lack of trust and transparency between those pressing the economic case for airport expansion and local communities,” says Valentine. “An independent ombudsman would make sure airlines and airports fulfil their obligations. It would give local communities the assurance that someone is looking out for them and give policy makers and residents alike a source of objective information that could be relied upon.”
A similar scheme running in Paris since 2000 has issued more than €10M in fines to airlines that breached their obligations and has the power to ground the aircraft of airlines that do not pay penalties.
The industry does seem to realise the importance of winning this fight, with airlines now replacing their fleets with planes that are up to 40% quieter than today’s similar-sized aircraft. In November, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to back the plan for an ombudsman, and also became the first airline to publish an aircraft noise management strategy.
Recently Heathrow named and shamed its noisiest airlines, claiming that 20% of major airlines still do not meet its minimum noise requirements. But don’t be fooled: if all seems quiet on the airport front in 2014, you can be sure there will be furious campaigning going on behind closed doors.
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