The result is finally in. The Airports Commission has spent almost three years examining where a new London runway would be best placed; now it has recommended a new northwest runway at Heathrow.
As long ago as December 2013, the Commission concluded that there is a clear case for one net new runway in London and the South East by 2030. This sentiment was echoed by David Cameron in Prime Minister’s Questions when he confirmed that, “There is the need for additional airport capacity in the South East of England, not least to maintain this country’s competitiveness.”
These were encouraging words. However, both the prime minister and the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, emphasised that the government would take time to read and reflect upon the report before responding. It is therefore likely that there will not be an official response until the autumn.
Yet, now that the Commission has delivered a clear recommendation for a new Heathrow runway, it is imperative that there is political action, and that the government makes its final decision sooner, rather than later.
As we wait for this to take place, it is important to remember that while the Commission has recommended a new runway be built in London, airport expansion is more than a question of where to put two and a half kilometres of tarmac. At its heart this issue is about the whole of the UK’s economic success and international competitiveness.
While politicians have spent the last 50 years dithering and prevaricating on expansion, London’s airports have been filling up. Heathrow is currently running at 98 per cent of capacity; Gatwick is full at peak times. Most other London airports are forecast to be full by 2030.
These constraints on available capacity have had dire consequences, not only in terms of the availability of air links to international destinations from London airports, but also for domestic air connections to and from other key cities around the UK. It’s particularly affected those cities in the north, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Let Britain Fly’s recent report, The Importance of Domestic Connectivity, examines how capacity constraints at London’s airports have resulted in domestic flights to and from the capital being “squeezed out” in favour of more profitable, long-haul routes.
Flights between London airports and key cities across the UK including Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle have all seen a decline in connectivity in recent years. Indeed, the overall number of domestic destinations served from Heathrow has fallen from 19 in 1990 to just 7 in 2014.
The decline in passenger numbers between UK cities and London airports, 2004 - 2014. Image: Civil Airports Authority.
However, with yesterday’s recommendation, the door is now open for the strengthening of the UK’s domestic air connections. This could, the Let Britain Fly report argues, stimulate tourism, trade and exports, foreign direct investment and other vital sectors in the UK’s regions and nations. In doing so, it could be an important tool in rebalancing the national economy.
The general public understands the need to expand our airports is one of strategic national importance that affects the economic well-being of the entire country. According to a recent Populus poll, supporters of airport expansion actually outnumber its opponents by a factor of three to one; that rises to a factor of four to one in London.
It also appears that MPs are aware of the decision’s importance. In a recent survey carried out on behalf of the AOA, 91 per cent of MPs agreed – 53 per cent of them strongly – that airports are important economic drivers for the regions where they are based.
With the numbers stacking up, and both the general public and their representatives on side, it is now up to our policymakers to take a swift decision and let Britain fly.
Gavin Hayes is director of Let Britain Fly, the pro-airport expansion campaign initiated by London First.