Comment: Improve transport links or investors will go elsewhere

Comment: Improve transport links or investors will go elsewhere

By Paul Charles, chief executive of Perowne Charles Communications

Imagine the scene. An airport with new runways, integrated train services, an art gallery inside and even two squash courts. Sadly, this isn’t Heathrow but the reality of Doha in Qatar. Later this year, on 12.12.12 to be precise, the new airport is expected to open on budget and on schedule.

Contrast this boldness, growth and optimism with the poor state of aviation policy in the UK. Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG, went further at a recent debate and aptly summed it up as “dreadful.”

We have been delaying and dithering for too long about whether Heathrow needs a third runway. It does need one but it seems it’s further away than ever. Even Willie Walsh admits he “doesn’t think it will happen.”

A national debate began a long time ago on the need for one but it shows no sign of ending. In the austere economy we live in right now, few politicians apart from Boris want to stick their neck out and commit to a new runway or a new airport, especially when no one can decide where the £50 billlion needed to build it is going to come from.

In the meantime, the UK is suffering from a lack of capacity that is instead being picked up by our European colleagues in Madrid, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

So, is it feasible to find more capacity at lower cost? In the short-term, permanent mixed-mode operations at Heathrow make sense. Planes should be allowed to take-off and land on the same runway, especially bearing in mind how much safer flying is than ever before because of the latest technology on aircraft such as the A380 and the 787.

Perhaps we now also need a second runway at Gatwick. This increasingly innovative airport doesn’t have the same issues as Heathrow in terms of noise levels affecting local residents or having to move a village to build a runway. A fast-rail link between the two is perfectly possible, especially if the private sector funded it. But would transit passengers find this just too inconvenient?

Other possibilities have been mooted – the expansion of Northolt to the west of London, utilising Birmingham Airport more, and banning domestic flights. But these solutions don’t go far enough in fixing the issue of capacity in UK airports.

While the debate rages on, the view of business around the world is that the UK perhaps isn’t the place to invest as much as it used to be. If transport links are not robust enough, then the investors will go elsewhere. UK plc will simply not be seen as the attractive option in terms of placing workers who need transport flexibility to do their jobs effectively and see family and friends regularly.

There are other possible solutions but the political or economic will just isn’t apparent. What’s the ultimate solution? It’s a government that is bold, ambitious and decisive. As they have been in Doha.

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