The UK Governments' establishment of the Airports Commission (Davies Commission) launches a further round of public consultations on the Future Development of UK Civil Aviation this year is not a total surprise. Following its earlier consultation on a Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation that closed in October 2011 and critical report from the UK CAA indicating that the Government should build new runway capacity in SE England, the Government needs to do something.
The Government finds itself in an awkward situation. Having pledged that there would be no new runways approved at any of the existing major SE Airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton) during the period of the present Parliament, and under pressure from the business lobby to revisit this policy. Also, the Government faces the impact of the initiative from the Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson who is backing the development of a major new 4-runway airport in the Thames Estuary which he claims could be built within 10 years. Yet another initiative by Lord Foster is a plan for a £50bn airport on the Isle of Grain, which would be capable of handling up to 150m passengers a year.
Also, many submissions made under the consultation “Sustainable Framework for UK Aviation” that closed in October (including one prepared by MSP Solutions - available here) recommended that the Government reconsider its policy including serious evaluation of the Thames Estuary options.
To date, the Airports Commission has received some 50 submissions relating to “long term” options. MSP Solutions Ltd. have submitted a Paper outlining our thoughts and proposals for longer term solutions to meet the ever increasing demand for air travel within the UK.
On the 7th October, Sir Howard Davies made a statement outlining the Commission’s “Emerging Thinking” (can be viewed at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/aviation-capacity-in-the-uk). This in essence stated their provisional conclusion from the analysis of the four arguments put to them is that there is a need for some net additional runway capacity in the south east of England in the coming decades. An attempt to rely only on runways currently in operation would be likely to produce a distinctly sub-optimal solution for passengers, connectivity and the economy.
Davies also noted more point to point flights in smaller aircraft, together with long passenger movements to airports remote from them, bring significant disadvantages. A mechanism for managing the carbon impacts of aviation will be needed if the UK is to achieve its statutory carbon targets – just as it will in other countries. However, this is the case whether new runway capacity is provided in the south east or not.
We now await publication of the Airports Commission long term recommendations before the end of 2013.
Most airports in the UK have responded with the core SE proposals being:
The Thames Estuary Airport, which has been studied before with several concepts evaluated in detail over the last 40 years including Maplin on the Essex coast in the 1970s and the more recent scheme at Cliffe on the Kent marshes that was rejected in the previous Labour Government’s 2003 White Paper. The option put forward, with the support of the Mayor of London, to build a major new world class hub airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary would offer London the prospect of resolution of the current shortage of runway capacity for the least environmental damage by minimising low level flights from take-offs and landings over urban areas.
The problem for this scheme is the enormous capital cost not only of building the island and the airport facilities, but also of making all the necessary road and rail connections. There is also the question of the geological structure of the area which would pose some risk to the stability of the island that might only be overcome at a very high capital cost.
The other issues that relate to all the Thames Estuary airport schemes are the distance and cost of road/rail access to London and the home counties both north and south of the river and to the west. Unless this access is both quick and convenient, a large proportion the high fare paying public will continue to choose flights from Heathrow and Gatwick. As a consequence the premium quality longhaul airlines would try to continue operating at the existing airports rather than moving voluntarily to the new estuary site. The objections of the CEO of International Airlines Group (BA/Iberia) to the Thames airport development probably represents the majority view of the airlines most of which tend to take a short term view and have particular interests in protecting the status quo.
To make the new airport viable the Government would have to support a substantial amount of the infrastructure cost especially road and rail access and would also have to invoke the Traffic Distribution Rules compelling airlines to move from the existing airports to the new Thames estuary airport. It is this compulsion that ultimately may impede the future development of the only realistic option to provide London with a World Class leading hub airport. Neither Heathrow nor Gatwick could realistically be expanded to 4 runway sites, which leaves Stansted as the final option for the UK’s hub airport with all the disadvantages entailed.
Heathrow Airport has put forward 4 options to provide an additional one or two runways which, combined with advancements in aircraft technology, ATC procedures, such as continuous descent, curved approaches, etc., may have the potential to reduce noise impact significantly.
Both Gatwick and Stansted have also made robust submissions to add additional runway capacity to become a Hub airport.