Don’t let politics delay extra airport capacity as it held back Crossrail

Sir George Iacobescu
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DEEP underneath the docks at Canary Wharf, the largest construction project in Europe is underway – the new Crossrail line. With a spectacular station, when this new railway opens in 2019, it will whisk passengers to Heathrow in just 39 minutes.

Canary Wharf Group was one of the driving forces behind getting the Crossrail project finally started, more than 50 years after it was first proposed and 30 years after it was given its name. The connectivity it will bring, especially the fast trains to Heathrow, will help secure our future growth as we increasingly attract high-tech businesses whose leaders are globally-mobile.

It took a long time to get Crossrail started, and it did not really get a political sign-off until it became clear that the success of London was threatened without it. So it worries me to see the same political indecision that delayed this vital piece of infrastructure preventing us from having the air connections that we need.

European competitors, like Germany, Holland and Spain, have been busy expanding their major airports so they can offer direct flights to destinations in developing countries like Indonesia, China and Brazil. Meanwhile, our major airports have been prevented from expanding, and the only new runway built in the south of England since the 1940s is at London City Airport.

For business travellers based at or visiting Canary Wharf, City Airport is a huge asset. And for those who need to travel to some emerging markets, there is always the option of flying from City to Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Madrid, and changing planes. The next generation of aircraft will also make a huge difference, bringing Doha and Dubai in range of London City.

But City Airport cannot make up for the lack of direct air connections from our main hub airport. This is especially important for the highly-skilled knowledge-based businesses that now drive the UK economy; their principal asset is people and those people need to fly. Yet London has fewer weekly flights than its European rivals to seven of the eight growth economies identified by the IMF.

At some point, our politicians must face up to this. We must build more runways, whether at existing airports or in a new location. And given that, even if the government were to commit to doing so today, it would still be a decade before the first planes would roll down the tarmac, we should find other ways of increasing the number of long-haul flights from existing airports – notably Heathrow – before then. Ignoring this problem would allow other countries to secure their links with tomorrow’s economies, and condemn the UK to scratch around for second division travel.

This is why Canary Wharf Group is backing the Let Britain Fly campaign, launched today. Our aim is simple: to encourage our politicians to act decisively when the Davies Airports Commission makes its recommendations in 2015 on sorting out the UK’s air capacity shortage. We cannot let the lack of decision that so delayed Crossrail continue with our airports.

Sir George Iacobescu is chairman and chief executive of Canary Wharf Group.