Opinion: What should have been D-Day for UK aviation policy became delay day

Opinion: What should have been D-Day for UK aviation policy became delay day

By Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the UK Board of Airline Representatives (BAR-UK)

We seem to have developed a habit in the UK of delaying vital decisions on infrastructure investment which would shock our industrious Victorian forebears.

Most frustrating of all is that after years of deliberation, the original plans are often finally given the go-ahead but with the consequences of lost business and increased costs.

The much-heralded consultation, ‘Draft Aviation Policy Framework’ published on July 12, demonstrates the point.

Originally expected back in March, this consultation ignores the key topic everybody wishes to address – hub airport capacity. The expression ‘fiddling whilst Rome burns’ easily comes to mind.

Whichever way you look at it, a hub airport consultation is vital for a visionary aviation policy that addresses the core issues, as well those linked to it such as noise and emissions.

Tackling them on a piecemeal basis is not the way forward. The aviation industry has worked tirelessly for many years to achieve massive improvements in these environmental areas.

The irony is that those hard-won technological gains are being swiftly eroded as a result of insufficient runway capacity causing aircraft to be ‘stacked’ while awaiting landing clearance or queued for takeoff.

The cost to the UK population and the environment is significant, yet massive gains in these areas are readily within our grasp.

In the short term, until around 2020, the consultation relegates the central issue of enhancing hub airport capacity to some undetermined point in the future, despite the UK’s immediate need.

The impact is already being adversely felt, where demand on airport slots and the need to obtain the best economic return is reducing the profitability of operating smaller aircraft. In turn, this places even more regional services at risk.

When might the issue of hub airport capacity be addressed – who knows? The official statement merely says: "We therefore intend to issue a call for evidence on maintaining the UK’s international aviation connectivity later this year".

What a remarkably downbeat objective that is.

No intention to widen and grow international connectivity – merely an objective to maintain it. The UK’s competitors must be revelling in their good fortune and hope that our indecision in strategic policy making continues.

The unavoidable fact is that hub airport capacity is severely restricted right now and clarity of policy is needed as a high priority. That may mean a two stage process is required to get us out of the current stalemate by delivering an aviation policy that a) will enhance hub airport capacity for the next 10-15 years, and b) examines longer-term needs

Whilst some in official circles optimistically advise that government aviation policy planning is in a better place than two years ago, the reality is that the UK is continuing to make noises but is doing nothing practical.

Meanwhile, competing nations are getting on with the job of providing their own clear and welcoming aviation policies to create employment opportunities and compete for trade, threatening economic growth in the UK.

In respect of UK aviation policy, a range of negative certainties present themselves:

• There will be no increase in UK hub airport capacity for many years, possibly decades;
• Government policy is to deny a third runway at Heathrow and any additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted;
• There will be no increase in slots at Heathrow, meaning any new destinations served are at the direct sacrifice of others;
• Air Passenger Duty, already the world’s highest, is planned to increase year on year and is directly linked to demand;
• Many overseas nationalities find the UK visa regime more expensive and onerous than that of Schengen countries.

Singly or collectively, these factors act as great deterrents to improving the UK economy. We need to act now and convert them into positives.

The Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK), representing 86 airlines, plays an important role in ensuring that the government can receive the widest possible feedback from the airline industry.

The government should:

• support an industry which is a key driver of economic growth;
• remind itself that aviation in the UK is self-funded by the industry and its customers;
• be pleased that public funds are not sought for expansion of runways or terminals at existing airports.

The industry is understandably frustrated that its requests to make its own investment on improving key UK transport infrastructure is continually being denied and yet with no viable alternatives or decisions forthcoming by the government.

BAR UK has highlighted to policy makers that this stagnation is already pushing some of its member airlines to disregard the UK and enhance schedules to other countries instead. This lost business will never be formally recorded; it will simply erode of its own accord.

It’s time that ‘Delay’ became ‘Deliverance’ and BAR UK calls on the government to provide a clear hub airport policy, with defined time scales, as a matter of great urgency.


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