Forget Heathrow, it's time to take Luton airport seriously

Nick Barton
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The real limit to London airports’ potential is transport links (Source: Getty)

In 2016 alone, London’s four major airports collectively handled over 162m passengers.

The latest tourism figures show that London’s popularity remains high, while a recent British Chamber of Commerce survey showed that over a third of UK SMEs are planning to invest more in selling abroad over the next five years.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has been pushing hard his message that “London is open for business” as the UK begins to leave the EU. The latest passenger numbers seem to support his rallying cry. But capacity is limited. London’s ability to meet demand from travellers is at breaking point.

Moody’s has predicted that traffic at UK airports – excluding an almost-full Heathrow – will expand by between 2 and 6 per cent this year. In our case, the number of passengers travelling through London Luton Airport (LLA) in May grew by over 8 per cent compared to the same month last year, and the airport recently passed the milestone of 15m passengers in 12 months.

That situation is unsustainable. We need to boost capacity now if London is to remain open for business.

Building a third Heathrow runway is only part of the solution. It will take at least 10-15 years to complete. And there is no guarantee things will run smoothly, with a number of MPs securing seats in the recent election being known opponents of Heathrow’s expansion.

There is a clear need for “quick wins” to free up capacity over the short- to medium- term.

The fact is that London does have the runway capacity needed to meet demand in that timescale. It is the capacity of public transport links to airports that is the major limiting factor preventing London’s airports fulfilling their full potential.

LLA is undertaking the biggest single investment in the airport’s history, planning to increase annual capacity to 18m by 2020, while also significantly improving the passenger experience and adding dozens of new routes.

But the real limit to the airport’s potential is its transport links.

Luton Borough Council and the airport itself are doing both their bit. Plans are well underway for the construction of a £200m light rail link between Luton Airport Parkway and the terminal, replacing the current shuttle buses. In theory, this will reduce the travel time to central London to under 30 minutes – faster than to Stansted or Gatwick.

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But this depends on a fast train service between the station and London St Pancras. LLA is currently the only major London airport without an Express-style rail service with four fast trains an hour. In fact, there is currently fewer than one non-stop train per hour.

The upcoming re-tendering process for the East Midlands Rail franchise is a chance to change that. And the case is compelling. Introducing four fast trains per hour will accelerate the economic dividend stemming from the airport’s current expansion, which is expected to add 10,500 jobs and an extra £1bn to the economy by 2030. It would also help reduce congestion on the M1 by taking over 70,000 cars off the road, reducing CO2 emissions by around 500 tonnes a year.

And this can be achieved by timetable change alone. Since no new rail infrastructure is needed, it can be done at no cost to the public purse. The revenue benefit from increased ticket sales could be worth up to £110m over the lifetime of the franchise

The proposals have received widespread support from businesses and politicians alike, including the shadow transport secretary, the chair of the Transport Select Committee, easyJet, the FSB and the CBI, to name a few.

For London to be truly open for business, it needs to be able to meet demand for international air travel. Public transport links, particularly rail, are fast becoming the major barrier preventing utilisation of the available runway capacity, but simple, effective and low-cost solutions are at hand.

There will inevitably be some difficult decisions to be made as the UK prepares to leave the EU. Improving rail services to airports should not be one of them.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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