The call for evidence to form a new aviation strategy for the UK closes today.
We live in hope, but the UK hasn’t had a proper strategy for 50 years.
While the need for more capacity grows, and Heathrow and Gatwick become full to bursting, successive governments have dithered over a decision on a third runway. We have allowed the entire future of a vital national industry to be held hostage by votes in marginal constituencies.
If – and it’s a big if – we do get a third runway, it will be years before passengers feel the benefit. Unless we do something, they will keep piling into our two biggest airports with delays and service getting worse.
The good news is there is a solution to the UK’s capacity problem. There is spare capacity in airports all across the UK. For example, at London Southend Airport, we help over one million passengers fly away on their holidays each year – but we could and plan to accommodate 10 times that number. Other airports across the UK have similar ambitions, but we need government support.
There are three simple ways the government can help free up the capacity.
First, through the taxation system with the most obvious example, Air Passenger Duty.
Unlike the big airports and airlines, I do not think this should be abolished altogether. Rather, it should be removed from smaller airports to encourage airlines to base more flights at them. This approach has the advantage of not blowing a hole in the chancellor’s budget.
Second, streamline the planning system. Airports like London Southend don’t have the resources of Heathrow, and applying for planning consent to improve our terminals is a time-consuming and extremely expensive activity.
Finally, the government needs to support investment in connecting infrastructure. With better rail and road connections to smaller airports across the country, passengers could more easily choose alternatives to Heathrow and Gatwick. In the case of London Southend Airport, this means the development of a much-improved rail connection, and an upgraded A127 road link to the M25.
Growing the capacity and improving transport infrastructure at smaller airports can deliver a wider economic benefit than just happier travellers. It can also help develop these areas. A recently published US study found that an increase in the number of destinations served with non-stop flights from an airport has a strong impact on the level of employment, number of business establishments, and average wage in the airport’s region.
The government must see that utilisation of existing airport capacity should be encouraged in the short term, not least because the construction of new runway capacity, especially in the South East, is at least improbable in the next decade.
Over the past 20 years, air travel through London’s airports has grown at a compound annual growth rate of five per cent. With a rising population, it is difficult to see how that long term trend will change. We must act now.