Better not Bigger?

Gatwick remains the world’s most efficient single-runway operation. (GIP)

A conference titled The Future for Aviation in the UK considered the new British Government’s philosophy, as Roy Allen reports.

Gatwick remains the world’s most efficient single-runway operation. (GIP)

The likelihood of a totally different regulatory regime with a new government, whose views on air transport and airport development appears to be diametrically opposed to the previous one in many areas, leaves many in the industry seeking answers about the future.  Philip Hammond, the new UK Secretary of State for Transport, has ruled out new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, because the government thinks that having greatly improved operations and facilities at the south-east airports is the way ahead.  It also wants the UK’s regional airports to play a more significant role.  With this in mind, on September 16 the Waterfront conference company drew together airport planners, consultants and engineers to discuss the issues.
Tom Matthews, of Reference Economic Consultants, noted that the UK’s Minister of Transport has promised a National Policy Statement on aviation in 2011, but wondered why Heathrow was the focus of attention when it fell short of passengers expectations in many ways.  Reaching Gatwick and Heathrow by surface travel is a trauma for many, with journey times totally unpredictable, ranging from 45 minutes to two hours.  High-speed train services should be given greater consideration, he said.  As a consultant for Highlands & Islands Enterprise, he pointed out that there are no all-year round international air services from the Highlands and Islands.  Where the south-east England airports are concerned, surface travel between these and Heathrow is seen as unreliable and inefficient.  He concluded that a more sophisticated policy is needed.
Barrister Hugh O’Donovan, considering CAA regulatory reform, noted that the Civil Aviation Authority’s duties are concerned only with preventing or remedying monopoly use through airport charges to users, transparency of accounting and unfair trading practices.  He said there is no direct regulation of standards of reliability or efficiency, information and communication, nor customer care and airport design and maintenance.  Thus, there is no effective recourse for passengers.  Mr O’Donovan said reform is needed in this regulatory framework and the CAA should set standards and enforce them.
Chris Whittle, Principal Project Manager for consultants Mott MacDonald, observed that London has insufficient runway capacity to meet demand.  In total, there are six operational runways for 130 million passengers.  The regions have more, with 23 operational runways for a current 88 million passengers.  Access to London, says Whittle, is the key to economic health and balance of opportunity in the UK.  He pointed out that passengers want choice, frequency, optimised schedules, competitive fares, less hassle and times to suit them, but their over-riding request is for reliability.
What are the solutions?  The indicators, said Whittle, point towards reduced runway movement rates, mixed-mode operations at Heathrow (which the government has ruled out on environmental grounds), and an airport to take the strain off Heathrow.  He proposed using Northolt, currently a military airfield, but one that also accommodates commercial executive movements.  It’s not a new idea, simply one that he recommends.  Six miles north of Heathrow, Northolt is currently allowed 7,000 business aircraft movements annually, and if these were turned into 75-seat regional aircraft it could be handling of 420,000 passengers a year at 80% load factors.
 
Regional solutions
Speaking for the Midlands while also supporting the importance of London, John Morris, Head of Government and Industry Affairs at Birmingham Airport, noted that £260 million ($411m) has been spent on the airport since 2000 and a further £200 million ($316m) of investment is planned.  He added that Birmingham (IATA BHX) is now handling 18 million passengers annually and has approval to expand to 30 million.  It has 72 stands, 20 airbridges and is A380 compatible.  Its runway will be extended to 9,840ft (3,000m) by 2014.  Today, the airport is 70 minutes from London by train, and with a high-speed rail terminal planned, one-hour times to London should be feasible; by 2025 28 minute journeys could be possible.  Birmingham, Morris suggested, is one answer to Heathrow’s congestion problem.
Richard Deakin, CEO of NATS, was clear that the new government’s belief in being better rather than always bigger brought many challenges.  In considering the future handling capabilities of Britain’s air traffic services, he noted that the UK’s two main centres, Swanwick and Prestwick, are currently dealing with 2.4 million flights per annum, 88% of which are to and from the UK.  Swanwick is handling 5,500 flights/day, with Prestwick has 2,500 flights/day.  Heathrow alone is coping with 1,300 flights/day, while the official figures show that Gatwick remains the most efficient single-runway airport in the world.  Heathrow’s total traffic movements are constrained for it simply cannot get aircraft off of the ground fast enough.  NATS is concerned with safety, capacity, cost and the environment, and in regard to the last is working very hard to reduce aircraft emissions and is on track to do so.  Bigger and better was Richard Deakin’s hope.
Where aviation and emissions are concerned, David Kennedy, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change said that biofuels should be economically viable by 2050, with an improvement in fleet fuel efficiency by then, of some 0.8%.  He foresees a 75% increase in air fares with a GDP growth of 150%.  A 60% increase in demand for air transport is compatible with the targets set for 2059.  He pointed out that there is scope for improvements in an aircraft’s carbon efficiency but said that it should be possible to handle increased demand because of the expected improvements.  However, he warned that some instrument for constraint on demand might still be required to meet the growth target.
 
Ask the Panel
A discussion panel was then convened, with delegates from the floor invited to put their views.  Regarding the question of using regional rather than London airports, John Morris of Birmingham Airport said that he believes the market will decide; people will determine for themselves whether they want to go to London or elsewhere.  High-speed rail can provide a part-solution to some problems but not all, observed Chris Whittle; while Richard Gooding, Managing Director of London City Airport (IATA LCY), said that the difficulty with Northolt is that the runway points in the wrong direction.

Birmingham’s John Morris believes that the market will decide future development; people will determine for themselves whether they want to go to London or elsewhere. (Birmingham Airport)

In drawing up a national policy statement, considering the thorny issues of future runway capacity in the south-east; the alternatives to south-east expansion; the impact of high-speed rail, and the consequences of disallowing further expansion, the panel’s conclusion was that this statement should at least say: Innovations are required; the money must be there, and that a balance has got to be found between environmental considerations and future transport requirements.
Unconcerned about expansion problems right now, Richard Gooding of LCY subsequently told Airports International that the facility is now handling three million pax/year and is still investing, having just built three new aircraft stands.  The airport has approval for the operation of 50,000 movements a year and has enough space to double the current number of aircraft parking places.
Roger Walker, Director of Operations at TAG’s Farnborough Airport, was, however, less sanguine about future prospects for this fast-developing business airport, currently seeing 25,000 movements a year.  The present top limit for movements is 28,000 but in view of the rapid pace of growth an application was made to raise the ceiling to 50,000 movements/year, but was rejected.  The airport is re-applying.  Meanwhile TAG is still investing in the airport, and to meet operators’ requirements has just built three new hangars.