Does the UK need the ‘Boris Island’ airport in the Thames Estuary or is there a solution to be found at existing facilities in the regions? Experts from both camps offer their arguments.
John Morris, head of government and industry affairs, Birmingham Airport:
Thanks to London’s tousle-haired Mayor, airports have become front-page news. The debate about recently-launched plans for a “Boris Island” has ignited a fierce debate about Britain’s aviation strategy.
The business community worry that Britain’s competitiveness is at stake.
Environmental Non Governmental Organisations claim air-travel is no longer relevant in an age of Skype. And British families wonder about the cost and convenience of the occasional holiday.
This is a debate worth having. The crisis of Britain’s airports threatens to derail economic growth. It is a metaphor for Britain’s failure to plan for the future. And the Mayor’s input is very welcome.
Of course, enormous obstacles to Boris’s vision remain.
Dutch air-traffic controllers. Three hundred thousand protected birds. Transport practicalities. The movement of the airport workforce and supply-chain. And the sheer cost of it all.
Nonetheless, London’s mayor is quite right to ask how Britain’s airports can meet the growing demand from holiday-making families and business travellers. And to think in ambitious terms about the answer.
Because, as he rightly acknowledges, the answer is not a third runway at Heathrow. Everyone accepts that option is now closed.
Whatever the merits of an estuary airport, two important questions remain unanswered by London’s mayor.
Firstly, there is a question of timing. Department for Transport projections, announced in December 2011, forecast that the number of passengers using the UK’s airports could reach 540 million a year by 2040, ahead of the 2008 figure of 372 million.
With the best will in the world, it hardly seems possible that an estuary airport could be built within 20 years. So how is Boris going to fill the gap in the meantime?
Birmingham’s nine million passengers could be doubled today, on existing infrastructure. Our approved master plan sees more than 27 million people using the airport by 2030, and this could increase to over 30 million. Boris will need this capacity to fill the gap.
Second, there is the question of location.
Whilst a high-speed rail link would do much to link an estuary airport to other parts of Britain, it is critical that Britain maintains airport capacity near its manufacturing base to create swift, affordable links with our export and import partners.
Mayor Boris should accept that it is no longer desirable for millions of passengers from the North and the Midlands to clog London’s overwhelmed airports, particularly those travelling to destinations well-served by regional airports like Birmingham.
He should also support the possibility that some London-based passengers would be better off travelling to Birmingham Airport.
After all, with a one-hour journey-time from Euston, travelling from central London to a plane at Birmingham Airport is often quicker than the complicated trip to a Heathrow boarding gate.
Particularly if you consider the crowded check-in queues and long slog to many gates at Heathrow.
Our message to Boris is simple. Britain’s long-term aviation problem requires courageous thinking. But make best use of underused assets, rather than simply adding to the imbalance that has taken place.
And our message to Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, is that the forthcoming aviation white paper must recognise the opportunity to distribute aviation in a way that economically benefits the whole UK – not just the South-east.
>> Next page: "Not enough passengers to Birmingham" - Transport for London deputy chairman Daniel Moylan
Daniel Moylan, deputy chairman of Transport for London:
What we need in this country is a major hub airport, like they have in Holland, France, Germany, Spain and many parts of the US and in Dubai.
And that means an airport with a minimum of four runways capable of bringing in large numbers of people.
If Birmingham wanted to have four runways and all those flights they should put forward that proposal and Boris would look very seriously at that.
What they want is passengers to Birmingham and they have to look at the questions why that is not happening at the moment.
Airports are private businesses and they are suggesting the government should force passengers to use the airport in Birmingham. How would they expect the government to do that?
Birmingham has one runway and is not a hub airport. With one runway they cannot get enough customers and they want the government to do something about it.
The demand is in the south east, they have not got enough demand in Birmingham.
They are like a shop that could take demand. Whose responsibility is that? It is their responsibility to make the airport attractive to passengers.
Q What do you say to criticisms than the enormous cost of building a new airport in the Thames estuary will mean airlines paying seven times as much for landing fees compared with the present costs at Heathrow, as much as £100 per passenger?
The fees will be set by the market. You have to take the customer into account. The cost (of an airport) will be covered by the fees.
It is a question of how long it will take to pay back the investment.
We do not know how much it will cost, whether it estuary or elsewhere. Boris is open to all suggestions and costs should be taken into account.
In this country airports are competitve businesses. Birmingham airport is like a Tesco that cannot get enough customers.
If Birmingham Airport was a real success it would be bursting with passengers.
Q Why should another airport be built in the south east?
Because it is the place where capacity is in most demand. Heathrow is at 98.5 per cent capacity. Gatwick and Stansted cannot really expand.
Demand in London plays a huge role in creating wealth for the whole country.
Q What about claims that flights at Boris Island would interfere with Schipol airport in Amsterdam?
Any new airport is going to require considerable reworking of aviation flying patterns, that is not unique to the Thames estuary.
A hub airport needs a minimum of four runways. In Dubai they are building a seven-runway airport.
We want to bring people in at relatively the same time of day. We bring people in at a practical time of day and ship them off again in waves. You have a quiet period and then you do it again.
We do not have that any more in this country. All these other countries have worked it out and we cannot get our heads around it.
Birmingham Airport should realise they are in a market and calling on the government is not the right solution to their business issues.