“Fortune favours the brave” was the conclusion of industry commentators when discussing how to maintain the UK’s status as an international hub for air traffic.
At a Clyde & Co seminar last week, over 50 attendees listened to a range of high profile speakers - Daniel Moylan, Deputy Chairman of TfL, Huw Thomas of Foster and Partners, David Leam of London First; and Sian Foster of Virgin - discuss the challenges facing the UK in preserving its status as an international hub for air traffic. In a poll held at the end of the event, over 50% of the audience felt that the creation of a new airport in the south east was the best solution, with the great majority of the remainder being undecided.
Ian Ginbey, Head of the Planning group at Clyde & Co, who has considerable experience of promoting the expansion of airports throughout the UK, commented: "The panel of speakers offered a vision and coherence of argument that was compelling. While there was unanimity that 'do nothing' is not an option for the future of aviation if the UK is to remain competitive in the global economy and that strong political decisions had to be made now, there was a greater range of opinion as to which option is most likely to achieve the desired outcome in the time required.”
Daniel Moylan, Deputy Chairman at TfL who leads the mayoral policy on aviation, laid out a clear argument for the importance of having an aviation hub in London: “Aviation is crucial to London’s future, and we want it to be a world city on the aviation superhighway. Jobs, growth, and economic prosperity for the entire country depend on this.”
He also spoke on behalf of the Mayor’s office about what has been termed ‘Boris island’ – a new hub airport built in the Thames estuary: “The regeneration of east London is a key priority for the city right now, and continuing this past the Olympics is very important. An island in the Thames estuary would create far less noise than any other location, and mean less loss of amenity for Londoners. However, we are not wedded to this idea, and welcome other proposals."
Huw Thomas, Partner at Foster & Partners, and responsible for developing the Grain island proposal, agreed with Daniel Moylan that: “Heathrow is in its endgame. It has a finite capacity and it is reaching that."
He called for interconnectivity across sea, rail, road and air to maximise the effect and return of any major infrastructure investment adding: “The existing structure where everything converges on London needs to change.
"If you get rail, for example, to circumnavigate London in order to release pressure across the city centre, then you can access ports and the European rail network much more easily. An airport on the Isle of Grain then becomes the logical next step to join up the network.
“Although there would be disadvantages in terms of disrupting people and the environment, these are not insoluble. Fewer people would be affected than would be if a new runway was built at Heathrow, and plans could be put in place to compensate the natural environment by building a new ecological habitat further north of the proposed site. The entire project could also be paid for by the private purse, with Heathrow redeveloped."
David Leam, Executive Director of London First, argued that timing considerations are a critical part of the analysis: “It is clear to see that we have an infrastructure problem when it comes to airport capacity already, so we need to look at the short, medium and long term solutions. In the short term, i.e. over the next five years, we can only see adding capacity – in the form of a new runway – to Heathrow as a solution.
"In the medium term, however, this runway plus added point-to-point connections could help maintain London as a hub while the longer term solution comes to fruition. This would have to take the form of a new airport which would act as a hub for the whole country; which of the options is best is yet to be seen, but do-nothing is not an option."
Sian Foster, General Manager of Government and External affairs at Virgin Atlantic offered the airline industry’s viewpoint: “If we were not constrained by the severe shortage of slots at Heathrow, not only would the industry be much more competitive but it would be much more efficient too.
"Although the idea of a new airport acting as a hub is interesting and exciting for the airline industry, it would only take shape after a long consultation, bidding and building period and while we need solutions today.
“The government needs to take brave decisions. In the short term, we need to employ a mixed model at Heathrow, allowing for 10-15% more capacity there; we need a third runway at Heathrow; we need additional runways at Gatwick or Stansted – at present Gatwick is the busiest single runway airport in the world, so extra capacity there is a must. Overall, the government needs to let the industry grow, within environmental constraints, how and where customers want it to grow."
Contributors from the floor added that the proposal for a new airport would need to grapple with significant issues in relation to financing, competition and access to airspace.
Ian Ginbey concluded: “The general consensus across the board is that talking about the problem needs to stop, and solutions need to be found. The debate has gone on for too long, time is now running out. Strong decisions need to be taken – and implemented – now.”