Few industries have been more dynamic and disruptive than aviation. No one foresaw the rapid shift from propeller planes to jets, the overnight rise of transatlantic jet travel or the 5 per cent cumulative annual passenger growth between 1970 and 2010.
Other trends also came as a surprise, including the explosion in airport retail and the emergence of the “Aerotropolis” – the clustering of goods and service companies around airports. In recent years, the birth and now dominance of short-haul and low cost carriers, creating access to many lesser-known destinations, has opened up opportunities for flight to more parts of society than ever before.
Aviation has both facilitated and grown in response to globalisation. But while the availability and experience of commercial flight has changed completely, it’s an understatement to say the infrastructure has not kept up. The simple fact is that we have not built a new, full-length, airport runway in the South East since the end of the Second World War.
So it’s a big step forward that the government has taken the decision to nominate Heathrow as the location for a new runway. It’s taken longer than we would have liked, but companies, including the three-quarters of Institute of Directors members who fly for business at least once a year, are glad the resolution has finally been made. However, to paraphrase Churchill, you might say this is the just the end of the beginning. It will be nearly 14 years before the first aircraft takes off from the new runway. In the meantime, we are going to have to focus on how we make the best use of our existing airport capacity.
We should acknowledge London’s strengths. With six airports, it is now the world’s best connected city by air, 14 per cent ahead of New York. Heathrow and Gatwick are full, but the smaller airports at Stansted, Southend, City and Luton have been quietly growing, mopping up the near insatiable demand for air travel, particularly for leisure, short-haul and point-to-point connections. They have been the unsung heroes of the last 30 years. A range of choices, and price-lowering competitive ones, since the privatisation and subsequent breakup of British Airports Authority has served us well.
But we can use them better. With the most spare capacity, Stansted can make the greatest difference. Its Achilles’ heel, the distance from London, could easily be rectified by a fast train that brings the journey time to under 30 minutes from 55. Already there are plans afoot for additional line capacity. A more radical solution would involve extending Crossrail to Stansted and further on to Cambridge along the M11. An additional limitation of Stansted could be dealt with more quickly. By lifting the artificial cap on aircraft movements, it could take up to an extra 20m passengers a year. There is no better time for government to enable Stansted to reach its full potential.
We can also expect to see further advances in air traffic control, making it possible to squeeze in more aircraft, in smaller areas of airspace. In air traffic, all airports have consistently surprised on the upside and that trend will continue. The introduction of Time Based Separation last year at Heathrow, for example, has allowed the airport to land 2.9 more aircraft an hour on windy days.
At the same time, we also need to look ahead, towards another runway. The beauty parade of different airport expansion options was a very healthy process. However, while we acknowledge that the Airports Commission has delivered detailed, insightful and voluminous reports, we would have liked it to have given more focus to three other key questions: where could a runway be built at the lowest cost to the taxpayer, to the maximum competition-enhancing benefit of passengers and airlines, and in the quickest possible time?
This matters because it seems that the Commission under-estimated the forecasts for when Gatwick and Stansted would be full, by 10 and 14 years respectively. In addition, the Airports Commission’s economic forecast is spread over 60 years, from 2026-2086, but it is very hard to know anything with certainty that far ahead – just look at the history of air travel in the last six decades.
So while the government deserves some credit for taking what was clearly a politically fraught decision, this can’t be the end of the matter. As the parliamentary process to get Heathrow built begins, ministers shouldn’t forget that there are five other London airports, all of which could be used better to boost business and leisure travel.