Comment: It's time for a decision on airport capacity

Comment: It's time for a decision on airport capacity

By Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association.

The UK needs more airport capacity. So say Conservative Ministers, so says the Labour party, and so says London Mayor Boris Johnson. Yet no political decision-maker has made a decision or knows what to do about it, more than two years into this coalition government.

There are several known – and presumably some unknown – options on the table. From a third runway at Heathrow, to Boris Island or Norman Foster International , to Northolt, Heathwick, to other proposed schemes involving Manston and Margate.

And there are other visions being mooted, of distributing hub capacity throughout the country via four or five big airports, and making use of High Speed Rail to connect Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London, and even eventually Scotland.

There is no consensus on what additional capacity should look like and where it should be located. From an AOA perspective, our view is very simple.

As the coalition government recognises, the UK’s economy needs to compete in both established and emerging markets and this requires excellent aviation connectivity right across the country, ensuring that the UK has both vibrant point-to-point airports and sufficient world-class hub capacity.

In order for this to happen, we need a bold aviation policy which includes a favourable planning and regulatory regime for all our airports and the provision of new capacity where it is needed.

And the AOA wants to see all its airports grow. I would like to see more runway extensions, more new runways and more planes in the sky – for that will mean not only is the aviation sector doing well, but that the country and the economy is doing well too, with more business deals taking place and more high-value freight being exported, more tourism and more people having the confidence and disposable income to visit friends and family in the UK and around the world.

However, the problem with the capacity debate is that while everyone argues for different things, there is the distinct possibility the sector will get nothing or something which will fail to make any real long-term impact.

It has been said to me on more than one occasion, including by some senior policy decision-makers and influencers, that the political objective is to kick this issue in to the long grass.

Any decision means upsetting someone somewhere; and with politics being a short-term game, the long-term national interest simply is not always the same as the party interest in winning seats and elections.

So with the Lib Dems already declaring they do not want to see any more airport capacity, it falls to the Conservatives and Labour to send positive signals – the fear is that they will find ever more elaborate ways to either not make a decision at all, or to make what aviation experts call a ‘sub-optimal’ decision.

We, the aviation sector, are missing a trick here. We are so busy and enthusiastic about fighting for different options that we are failing to hold the government’s – and HM Opposition’s – feet to the fire. And that is on the issue of timescale. What is the timeline for making a decision; and what is the deadline?

This is the question everyone should be putting to Number 10, Number 11, the Department for Transport, and the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. The one thing we can all unite on – whatever proposal specific advocates believe in – is that these vital issues cannot be delayed much longer and should not be kicked in to the long grass.

We’ve just this week learned that the 1st Draft of the Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation will be out by the end of July, and the call for evidence on hub capacity will report back its initial findings by January 2013.

So I urge all those involved in this debate – from the aviation sector, to tourism, business and anyone else – to lobby the government for a timescale and deadline for final decisions on this.

At every opportunity – including responding to the Framework consultations and hub call for evidence – we should be asking the government whether it will make its final pronouncement next March; or before the next general election in May 2015; or after the election, in which case can we expect party manifestos to include clear proposals for addressing the issue of airport capacity?

Once we have the answer to these questions, then the debate over what form and where the capacity should be built can begin in earnest.

At the moment, the government is benefiting from a divide and rule approach which we in aviation, tourism and business are happily playing along with. It is time that we united in asking a simple question to the government – what is your timescale and deadline for a decision? If you want airport capacity, as you say you do, then when will you decide?

We may not get an answer. But then that alone would tell us what we need to know about the government’s commitment to more airport capacity.

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