Between the lines: Airport expansion matters

'Air links to London are vital for all the major Scottish cities'. Picture: Contributed
'Air links to London are vital for all the major Scottish cities'. Picture: Contributed
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This week the Airports Commission’s public consultation on the three short-listed options for airports expansion in London and the South East comes to a close after a hotly contested debate.

Often this debate can seem very remote to those of us who reside north of the Border. But a lack of airport capacity in the South-East is not just a problem for London, it is increasingly a problem that has economic ramifications for all of the constituent parts of the UK, including Scotland.

If we look at our economy as a whole, the UK trades twenty times more with countries with which we have a direct air link and around 40 per cent of UK exports go by air, mostly in the belly-holds of passenger planes. Included in the long list of exports are Scottish salmon and Scotch Whisky.

Air links to London are vital for all the major Scottish cities as we try to grow our exports in different products and services into more markets and the connections to London are a vital conduit for this required increase.

Take tourism as an example, Edinburgh alone is the UK’s biggest tourism destination outside of London attracting 1.3 million international visitors a year with a staggering total annual spend of £1.16 billion. But many of those visitors will have travelled on a plane via London before arriving at their final destination. If we want to maintain and enhance Scotland’s status as a leading tourist destination, then we need to maintain and enhance our connections with London, as well as pushing for more direct international links from Scottish airports.

Equally, Scottish business leaders need good air links with London in order to go and do business in the UK capital itself, but we also need to travel via London airports to reach a whole host of far flung destinations not currently serviced directly by Scottish airports, because our smaller catchment area makes them less commercially attractive.

The problem is that Heathrow has already been full for a decade, with Gatwick forecast to be full by 2020 and most of London’s main airports at full capacity by the end of the next decade without urgent action. This is why the Airports Commission has recommended one net new runway by 2030.

So what are the consequences? There is little doubt that a lack of capacity is hampering the UK’s ability to connect with rapidly growing economies such as Brazil and China. London has fewer weekly flights than other European aviation hubs to seven of the eight growth economies identified by the IMF.

However this lack of capacity is equally having consequences in terms of the number of domestic routes between London and the rest of the country, with many routes to and from London to other UK cities having been cancelled or reduced.

UK destinations from Heathrow decreased from 19 in 1990 to just 8 in 2012. The Airports Commission has forecast that by 2040, unless capacity is expanded, the number of domestic destinations served from Heathrow may fall further to just four. It’s equally important to note that all London airports have witnessed a decline in domestic traffic in the past decade, so it’s not just a Heathrow problem. And as London’s airports get ever-more full this problem is only likely to get worse.

Indeed there’s evidence of it already happening. Virgin’s Little Red was flying between Heathrow and Edinburgh but the flights will cease in March with Richard Branson citing pressure on slots in the London market as a key reason behind its demise. The net result is less choice and fewer flights for Scottish business travellers and leisure consumers alike.

We at the IoD in Scotland have spent a lot of time recently expressing our opposition to Air Passenger Duty and we see its reduction or abolition as vital but so too is the growth of capacity as more of us each year take to the skies.

If a new runway is built in the South East it will benefit the UK economy as a whole, including Scotland.

This is why we need our political leaders here in Scotland to throw their weight behind a quick decision on airports expansion guided by the Airports Commission’s final recommendation. If Scotland’s future economy is to fly then we must build the UK capital’s capacity as well.

l David Watt is executive director at IOD Scotland