Grounding planes means grounding growth: We must act on airports now

A SOLUTION to London’s airport capacity crisis is a national imperative. After years of indecision and inertia, we have got to act to support growth.

Heathrow opened in March 1946, less than a year after the war, and has since grown to become the world’s third busiest airport. Yet in the time it took to identify, plan and build Heathrow, the coalition has merely appointed a commission to examine airport expansion. Once the fastest growing airport in the world, Heathrow is now operating at 99 per cent capacity, and it has erected a giant “closed for business” sign to most new business flights which require an international hub.

Since new services to emerging markets will not generally go to Stansted or Gatwick if they are unable to access Heathrow, they are going instead to viable European hub airports: Schiphol in Amsterdam with its six runways, Charles de Gaulle in Paris with four, or Frankfurt – which has just opened a fourth runway as well as a high-speed rail link to other major German cities. London now has fewer weekly flights than its European rivals to seven of the eight major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, South Korea and Indonesia.

Over 20 emerging market destinations are served by daily flights from other European cities, but not from London. Besides Hong Kong, Heathrow offers only three to five flights a day to China’s developing cities, compared with 11 from Paris CDG and 10 from Frankfurt. There are no direct flights to Columbia or Peru. And while you can fly direct to Santiago, Spain, you cannot to Santiago, Chile.

Then there is Dubai, a growing, competitive threat. Its existing international airport already serves 260 destinations worldwide. And next month, Dubai’s new Al Maktoum airport opens with five runways and capacity for 160m passengers a year – more than twice Heathrow’s existing traffic.

Heathrow’s past growth has given London the best connections in the world to established global cities, including New York and Hong Kong. But faced with a capacity crunch and the expansion of its rivals, London risks losing this status.

The IMF predicts that by 2024, emerging market countries will have overtaken advanced economies’ share of global GDP. This is why it is essential for London to establish direct flights to countries which will be increasingly crucial to our prosperity. Britain has thrived for centuries as a country which opens its borders to trade; if we close them now, the opportunities of the next century will pass us by.

It is not too late to do what London has done many times before: adapt itself as a global gateway to the world. But to do so the government’s airports commission must assess the available options with urgency. Instead, the issue has been kicked into the post-election long grass beyond 2015.

The commission was established over a year ago. It still hasn’t even produced a shortlist of options, and its only achievement so far is to say that we do indeed need a new runway – somewhere.

What should happen now is this: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson (as Mayor of London) should agree to accelerate the work of the airports commission, asking it to report next summer. They should all say – as do I – that they are genuinely open-minded on the options and will not pre-judge the report.

They should also agree to hold joint talks over summer 2014 to try to forge a consensus. Whether they succeed or fail, they will have to tell the voters in 2015 what they intend to do. It will be hard for them to reconcile inaction with any claim to be pro-growth. Equally, people who live around airports have a right to know what is being proposed before, not after, the 2015 election.

Leaving aside the present policy vacuum, and the economic damage it is causing, the long grass strategy is also poor politics. The tuition fees episode in this parliament demonstrates the hazards of a post-election “rabbit out of the hat” approach to highly controversial issues. And new airport capacity will be far harder to implement without a mandate than the trebling of tuition fees, which could be done by the stroke of an administrative pen.

Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, used to say: “indefinite planning is not planning at all”. Nor is indefinite indecision. The time for decisions has come.

Lord Adonis was transport secretary and minister for schools in the last government.

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April 22, 2014, 2:25pm