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Aviation capacity in the UK: emerging thinking

Airports Commission

October 7
13:17 2013

The Airports Commission has now been working for eleven months. The government announced our remit in Parliament on the second of November 2012, and we issued our first discussion and guidance papers on the first of February 2013.

We committed at the start to an open and consultative approach, and have lived up to that commitment. We have met stakeholders from all sides of the public debate from environmental NGOs and local campaigners, through Parliamentarians, local politicians and devolved governments, to engine and airframe manufacturers and airport and airline executives. We have held a series of public meetings, have visited many of the existing airports and possible sites for new ones, and have visited or met managers of a number of complementary and competing airports overseas. Most importantly, we have issued five substantial consultation papers, on demand forecasting, air connectivity and the economy, climate change and the airline industry, on the vexed question of the respective roles of hub airports and point to point routes, and on noise and aviation.

These papers have generated many responses. We are grateful to all those who have responded and helped us in our work. Of course in some cases, at airports or in airlines, for example, one may argue that it is their job to do so. But many others, in local action groups or environmental organisations, have devoted much personal time to preparing well-considered responses to the many questions we have posed.

The nature of the papers we have published also demonstrates our determination to take a broad approach to our remit, which distinguishes this exercise from others which have preceded it. We aim to integrate a wide range of factors into our analysis, including climate change, employment, surface transport, the quality of the environment and indeed the character of life in a modern global city. We are also taking account of the dynamic nature of the aviation industry, which has been changing shape dramatically in recent years, with the rapid growth of low cost carriers and new competitors airlines and airports in the Middle East and Asia in particular.

Our final conclusions will not please everyone, I am sure. But they will be better informed as a result of all this effort. I hope we have improved the quality of debate on what has been and remains a fraught topic.

Developing major infrastructure projects, whether road, rail or air-related, or in other sectors such as energy, is never easy. Those who live or work near an airport will often benefit from the employment or the connectivity that it provides. But they will also often experience a significant impact on the quality of their local environment, particularly as a result of aircraft noise. In contrast, the much larger numbers of people who live elsewhere and enjoy the airports convenience and facilities from time to time, will not experience such effects and will not obviously contribute to offsetting them.

The remit we were given requires us to make recommendations on how to maintain the UKs position as a hub for international air traffic. We will say more later about how we will define that objective more precisely, taking account of changes in the competitive environment for airports. But we should emphasise now that we are trying to make recommendations which will respond to the long-term needs of the UK economy, where connectivity by air is a crucial factor. A trading nation like the UK must maintain strong air links with its most important markets today, and in the future. That is especially true of an economy which depends heavily on the service sector, which is strongly influenced by the need for face to face contact.

The government asked us to prepare an interim report before the end of this year, and a final report, with clear recommendations, in the summer of 2015. We are on track to deliver these reports on time. The first one will, as requested, set out our views on short-term measures that might be taken to make better use of existing airport capacity. That includes looking at potential measures to improve surface access to south east and some regional airports. Such improvements could make a difference to the utilisation of runway capacity. We have also said that we would propose a short-list of options for new or expanded capacity in the longer term, following a call for proposals which we issued earlier this year.

That call elicited over 50 responses proposing new capacity, ranging from runway extensions to entirely new facilities on greenfield, or indeed blue water sites. But we have also received a number of responses arguing that none is needed. Others have made similar points in response to our papers on forecasting and on climate change. They say we should rule out any expansion of capacity for the foreseeable future.

The commission began its work in a state of agnosticism on this point. As citizens working in business, academia or public service we had heard the arguments in favour of new runways and airports, but none of us had taken a firm public view on the subject. So where are we now on this underlying issue? We think it would be helpful to inform continuing debate on the options if we gave an indication now of how our thinking has evolved so far.

The arguments for expansion are well known. Briefly, advocates of expansion argue that effective aviation links enable us to travel for business and for leisure to reach new places, to visit family and friends abroad and to meet and work with clients, suppliers and colleagues. In an interconnected world economy, with companies and social networks often spanning many countries and continents, it is unsurprising that global demand for international travel is growing. There is a lively debate about causation and correlation which will perhaps never be resolved, but there is no doubt that there is a strong statistical link between the countries we are connected to and the countries we trade with. As new trade links grow, new air links will be needed to support them, and vice versa. Equally, there is no doubt that people value highly the ability to travel abroad for leisure whether to expand their horizons or simply to work on their tan.

But we need to ask whether growth in aviation is consistent with other obligations, for example to play our part in tackling climate change, and if so whether any significant expansion in airport or runway capacity is needed to accommodate future demand. It is to these questions that I turn next.

Four principal arguments are advanced by those who maintain that we do not need to plan for new airport capacity in London and the south east. There is some overlap, and not all their advocates support all of them, but it is helpful to distinguish the different strands for the purposes of exposition.

The first is that official and industry forecasts of demand for air travel have been systematically over-optimistic. Successive Department of Transport forecasts have recently been reduced, since the financial crisis and associated recession. That is partly a function of lower GDP growth, which is a strong driver of demand, but also a result of higher oil prices, which have increased the cost of flying aeroplanes. So we should not take continued rising demand for granted. Had all the requests for additional airfields and runways been accepted in the past, we might have many redundant pieces of infrastructure today. Some make the additional point that changing competition between airlines and airports means that new competitors have emerged, with significant competitive advantages for some transfer passengers (in the Gulf and elsewhere), which will reduce the available market share for UK airports.

The second contention is that even if growth in demand for aviation continues to rise, airlines will be able to accommodate it within our current runway capacity. That may involve some operational changes, and continued increases in load factors and in aircraft size. It is argued that Heathrow has not achieved the increase in the average number of passengers per flight that was envisaged in the planning application for Terminal 5, for example, and that doing so would allow a material increase in the number of passengers handled there without any more air traffic movements. It would also entail greater usage of existing spare capacity noting that even in the south east there is still substantial capacity available at airports such as Stansted, Luton or Southend.

The third set of arguments comes from an environmental perspective. The claim here is that we should not simply build airport capacity to meet whatever level of demand emerges - what has been known as the predict and provide model. In particular, it is argued that the UKs legislated climate change commitments to reduce UK emissions by 80% by 2050, relative to 1990 impose a severe limitation on the amount of air travel we can allow. While only 6% of UK carbon emissions today are associated with air travel, that proportion could rise sharply as other sectors reduce their emissions. If we allowed unlimited growth in air traffic, that would impose high costs on the rest of the economy if the overall target is to be met, for example, pushing up domestic heating bills as the energy sector has to decarbonise more quickly. And in some sectors, additional emissions reductions over and above what is already proposed may prove technically infeasible. So, in the absence of a comprehensive emissions trading scheme, the best way to control air travel may, on this argument, be to constrain the growth of airport capacity.

The fourth argument is that there is a role for government in requiring or incentivising the redistribution of air tr

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