What now for Heathrow, and for air travellers?

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As I write this piece, the media are full of stories about the government announcement that it was delaying any decision on implementing the recommendations of the Airports Commission in relation airport expansion in the South East.


There is some good news in this announcement, in that the government has formally acknowledged that it accepts the need to build more runway capacity in the south east, but equally some bad news, in that it has delayed any final decision as to where any new runway should be built, to enable further work to be carried out on the air quality and greenhouse gas impacts of any decision.


This is just the latest in a series of delays in decision making on this particular topic. Indeed, the creation of the Davies Commission back in 2011was largely a delaying tactic by the Coalition government, who recognised that there was a problem in relation to airport capacity, but where both partners had made a political commitment in their election manifestos in 2010 not to build a new runway at Heathrow.


This time round, the reason given for the delay is to enable further environmental work to be undertaken. This seems a little surprising, since the publication of the Davies Commission report was in itself delayed to allow further consideration in this area – so this definitely sounds like an excuse. The timing also seems to be politically motivated. No decision will now be taken until after the elections for the Mayor of London. The current Mayor, Boris Johnson, whilst supporting the need for new airport capacity, continues to peddle his own solution, “Boris Island” – which whilst it may still be the most sensible long term solution, has no other political or financial backers, so is never likely to happen. It’s simply the continuation of a series of proposals, which date right back to my childhood in the 1960s, when Foulness, off the Essex Coast was suggested as the best location for a new airport. His possible successor, Zac Goldsmith is a keen environmentalist, and has threatened to resign as a Tory MP if Heathrow is chosen. Putting off any decisions until after the elections doesn’t therefore come as that much of a surprise – although the elections were always scheduled for 2016, so it smacks of political ineptitude not to have identified this as an issue earlier than the week before the final decision was scheduled to be announced.


Even if the decision does smack of incompetence, it shouldn’t really come as any great surprise. Successive governments have proved themselves unwilling or unable to make politically difficult infrastructure decisions, particularly when it comes to transport. The UK planning process is partly designed to prevent hasty, and possibly wrong, decisions being made, with numerous rights of appeal, and requirements for formal enquiries into some of the larger decisions. Whilst the government have attempted to reduce this level of bureaucracy, any major infrastructure work tends to take many years from concept to planning to construction. This is partly due to the conflicts between the interests of local residents who may be negatively impacted by any plans and the wider community or economic interest, which may need the infrastructure to be constructed. As someone living next to a major railway line, I can understand that, as I wouldn’t want a sudden decision being made to widen the line and take my house out. However, equally, I wouldn’t want years of uncertainty, as this can result in planning blight, and massive losses in value of houses etc.


The problem really stems from the fact that governments generally think short term. A long horizon for most governments is the next election, which is never going to be more than 5 years away. It takes a far sighted government to make decisions which may be unpopular now which will only reap benefits in 15 or 20 years time. It’s much easier to leave those decisions to others.


However, delaying making long term decisions like runway capacity do have bigger impacts. One of the other decisions put off earlier was in relation to government restrictions on night flights. At present, only Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are subject to any formal night flights regimes. Davies recommended that additional runway capacity should only be built if there was some respite given to residents by further restrictions on night flights. The government is obliged to review the regimes every 5 years, and last time this was due, delayed any consideration pending the Davies Commission report. The problem is that Heathrow is now completely full and Gatwick is full for large parts of the day. As a result, any decision to increase restrictions on night flights will either result in flights being forced out of the sky, or there being more capacity pressure during the day. There will therefore be some challenges in coming up with any workable solution in the next consultation, scheduled for 2016.


From my leisure background, I tend to look at this from a customer perspective. None of our customers really like departing on their holiday at 06:00, or landing home at 02:30, but often, in order to ensure that we use aircraft fully, we have little choice but to operate flights at those unsocial hours. Nowadays, the leisure airlines mainly fly to medium haul destinations – the Canaries, Greece, Turkey and so on, with an average flight length of around 4 hours. To make the financial model work, the airline has to fly 2 round trips per day in the Summer – which involves around 16 hours flying, and around 4 hours in turnarounds. Horrible return flight times therefore become inevitable. However, if the airlines had a curfew of, say 23:00 on their arrival times at Gatwick, either there would have to be large price increases for flights with the affected airlines, or a lot of routes would need to be withdrawn. Neither of these are really in the interests of holidaymakers.


Equally, the continued dithering about whether to expand South East airport capacity is ultimately going to impact on whether flights can operate, and therefore whether people can go on holiday or travel for business. Maybe not for a year or two, but certainly in the next 10 years, government indecision is simply going to create a problem. Clearly, there are those who believe we should fly less, but looking at it simply, if the population growth does materialise at the levels predicted (4.4 million extra people by 2024, many of whom will be immigrants, who will want to return from time to time to their home countries), there will be a need for extra airport capacity to support that population.


So, the short term unwillingness of the government to get off the fence and decide on the future of aviation from the South East is likely to have nasty longer term effects for air travellers – and unless as a country, we start addressing this type of issue, we are simply building up problems for future generations.