Daniel Moylan, advisor on aviation to London Mayor Boris Johnson explains the thinking behind his strategy to increase capacity in the South East of England
London is unique. There are very few cities in the world that can boast as many iconic attractions and World Heritage Sites as our capital. Its uniqueness, however, derives from the opportunity we give visitors to acquaint themselves with the sights before they arrive. They are given ample opportunity to gaze out at them from the cabin windows of their aircraft as they circle over London, not once but two or three times, in a stacking pattern while they wait to approach and land at Heathrow.
We are suffering from a lack of capacity today, and the demand for air travel is growing fast. In the Government’s central case, demand will more than double to 2050. In fact, when viewed alongside other credible forecasts the Government’s forecasts appear conservative. But whilst air travel brings great benefits, its harmful impacts can be severe. Where and how new airport capacity is located must be the subject of careful and detailed assessment. This is why the Mayor of London has been asking for people’s views on the criteria that should be used to assess each of the potential options for the new aviation capacity we need.
The Mayor is proposing a set of criteria to serve as a common yardstick. They are deliberately wide-ranging and aim to provide an objective basis for making a vital policy decision. They have been devised with input from an independent panel of experts and, once the public consultation comes to a close on Friday 8th February, they will be finalised and applied to a longlist of options. Here, I outline the thinking behind the criteria, which encompass six broad categories.
Central to the argument for new aviation capacity is the regional and national economic benefit. London ’s highly international and productive economy is uniquely dependent on access to a comprehensive global network of direct and frequent flights. Many routes, particularly to longhaul destinations, rely on a combination of both local demand and transfer passengers to be viable. This pooling of demand is only achievable at an airport that can facilitate hub operations.
At Heathrow today, on average, 35 per cent of occupied seats on every plane are filled by transfer passengers. On certain specific routes, however, this figure can reach more than 75 per cent. In order to keep our capital’s position in the premier league, we need a hub airport that is able to attract and anchor a world-class level of connectivity. We must continue to expand established routes, whilst simultaneously serving new and emerging destinations. Our relatively poor connections to those new and emerging markets are already estimated to be costing the UK economy more than £1bn per year.
London must safeguard its position as a global city, but excellent connectivity can also enable the UK regions to participate more fully in the wealth creation opportunities which London offers. Through excellent global aviation links, London can offer other UK regions opportunities for developing much stronger, more globally competitive economies themselves.
Other European countries understand this. France , Germany and the Netherlands are all developing their major hub airports. And it is not speculation to say that they are already sucking away our connectivity. Amsterdam Schiphol, which is a six-runway leviathan of an airport, currently provides direct flights to twenty-six destinations in the UK . Heathrow, by contrast, connects to only eight. If the current trend continues, the UK will increasingly become little more than a country station at the end of a branch line: people will still be able to reach us, but only on multi-stage journeys through major continental hubs like those in Amsterdam , Frankfurt and Paris . That is hugely unappealing to time-sensitive business travellers and it is a disincentive to tourists as well.
Our current situation stems from a failure over decades to form a decent UK aviation policy, leading to a piecemeal approach to airport expansion. But there is still time to rectify this and develop a bold plan now. New capacity must meet the needs of airlines, passengers and freight; if it does not, the UK ’s air traffic will dwindle and it will lose the associated benefits. Central to these needs is a world-class hub airport. In Heathrow we have one that is dysfunctional in several regards: it is barely able to cope with the demands placed upon it today and suffers from constraints that would never allow it to expand to the scale we will need. Modern hub airports such as Dubai can accommodate ‘waves’ of arrivals and departures offering minimum connection times in the region of 40 minutes. They also have a real advantage in being able to operate throughout the day and night, allowing aircraft to arrive and depart at a time that is commercially most advantageous, without disturbing the sleep of many hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
The safety of air travel remains paramount. Our skies are already some of the most crowded in the world. If the development of new capacity warrants a substantial recast of airspace, compliance with current and future airspace regulations is essential. We must look at the opportunities that initiatives such as the ‘Single European Sky’ could offer to refine the way we understand and address airspace conflicts.
It is vital that any new airport capacity is supported by excellent surface access links. Rail is uniquely placed to provide fast, high capacity, sustainable access for passengers and employees alike. Airports such as Paris and Amsterdam demonstrate the potential for connecting an airport into local, regional, national and international rail networks. Properly integrating an airport into a network of transport infrastructure maximises the catchment area it can draw upon – enhancing the connectivity it can offer, and spreading the benefits far beyond the airport’s immediate hinterland.
Any expansion in capacity must be environmentally sustainable, minimising the impacts on local communities, the natural environment and the planet. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended a limit for aviation growth, and their analysis indicates that UK-wide growth to 2050 in the region of 140 million additional passengers per annum is likely to be compatible with our climate change targets.
Noise is also a very serious concern and statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority show that, of all EU residents adversely affected by noise from airports, Heathrow accounts for 28%. This is more than its main rivals (Paris CDG, Frankfurt, Amsterdam , Madrid and Munich ) combined. Only by giving proper weight to noise issues in our assessments can we make sure that our future airport capacity is not afflicted by the same problems that face Heathrow because of its proximity to the hundreds of thousands of people who live nearby.
New capacity must be capable of being delivered and funded, and represent value for money. Any proposal must take into account likely planning and construction issues, as well as the need to secure funding. We can learn from the visionary approach others have adopted, many of whom have had British expertise at their core. Brand new major hub airports such as those in Hong Kong and Seoul have been successfully delivered well within a decade.
Applying these criteria
We must use these criteria to reach a decision and act upon it. But Sir Howard Davies’ commission, set up by the Government to investigate this whole issue, is not due to report fully until beyond the next General Election, in 2015. It is extremely difficult to see how this delay is justified; the extra time certainly isn’t necessary to do the job properly. By contrast, the Mayor of London is embarking on a programme of work that will allow him to submit a detailed submission of evidence to the Davies Commission this year – enough to know which options the Commission should look at in more detail. The Mayor’s consultation on new aviation capacity criteria is the first phase of that programme and he welcomes all views. We have to get this right and we have to get it right first time. We cannot afford another sticking plaster, nor we can we afford further delay.