Opinion: Political support could mean good times for airports

Opinion: Political support could mean good times for airports

With the right policy support from decision-makers we can ensure that 2015 is a record-breaking year for UK aviation, says Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association

This should be the year when we will see more passengers at UK airports than ever before.

That is the encouraging message that we can draw from the latest statistics on UK airport passenger numbers from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The CAA points out that last year UK airports handled 10 million more passengers than in 2013, a rise of 4.4%, taking the total to 238 million, just a fraction below the pre-recession record of 240 million set in 2007. It was the fourth year in a row that passenger numbers have increased.

Many of our airport members achieved strong growth, with Gatwick, Heathrow, London City, Luton and Southend each handling their highest ever annual total of passengers.

Outside London, healthy numbers were recorded by Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Manchester and Southampton airports.

All of this represents a striking achievement by UK airports, but they could be doing even better with the right support from politicians, which would be good news not just for airports, but also for passengers, the UK economy and for inbound and outbound tourism.

As the CAA said when the statistics were released, the fact that numbers are growing much faster at London airports than in the rest of the UK highlights both the pressures on airspace in the southeast and the need for more runway capacity in London – and these two issues need to be tackled if consumers are to continue to gain from the UK’s strong aviation industry.

That means that following the general election, the government and parliament should bite the bullet and act on the final report of the Airports Commission.

This is a decision that has been ducked for far too long and there will never be a better time for an early and strong government decision, backed by parliament, in the long-term national interest.

But it isn’t just about London and the southeast. Airports across the country can play an important role in accommodating new air routes. The new government will need to act to encourage regional airports, ensuring that we make the best use of existing capacity to promote economic growth and tourism.

Route development and promotion are areas where the government has improved its offering in recent years. VisitBritain, for example, has worked over several years with airports and airlines to establish new routes for the UK, particularly with emerging markets.

Good examples are its partnership with Birmingham Airport and Air India to promote a new route from Delhi to Birmingham and its partnership with Manchester Airport and American Airlines to encourage visitors from the east of the United States to visit Manchester and North Wales.

This needs to continue. The government has also set up the Regional Air Connectivity Fund to encourage the start-up of new services, and we are hopeful that this will prove to be a success.

There are other areas in which the government can take action to promote airport growth.

As we all know, Air Passenger Duty (APD) acts as a major deterrent to airlines wishing to set up new services to and within the UK, and the issue of rail and road access to airports and the need for a national transport strategy that takes into account how visitors to this country travel between destinations is something that needs to become more of a priority for policymakers.

Of course, at the AOA, we are pleased that last year the Chancellor abolished two of the long-haul bands for APD and paved the way for the abolition of the tax for children.

But the fact is that, even with those changes, APD remains far too high and puts us at a serious competitive disadvantage compared to the rest of Europe. There is also the looming issue of the devolution of APD to Scotland.

With the Scottish government promising a 50% cut in APD, we need to ensure that any such cut in one part of the UK is matched across the whole country, so that no region is able to claim an unfair advantage and we have in place a fair tax regime that does not distort the market.

Following the general election, the AOA will be launching separate campaigns to ensure that the incoming Government and Parliament properly understands the key contribution that airports make to the national economy, to local communities and to our thriving tourism industry.

With the right policy support from decision makers we can ensure that 2015 is a record-breaking year for UK aviation.


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