When the Airports Commission started its work, we were clear about one thing. This would not be a commission for London and south-east England. We would take a UK view and make sure we understood the national, regional and local implications of any proposals we made for new airport capacity.
As a result, I have heard from a huge number of people from around the country keen to voice their thoughts about the future needs of the UK aviation industry.
And when we asked for ideas for enhancing aviation capacity, we received more than 50 potential solutions. Some proposals argued for new airports, some for the expansion of existing airports. Others argued that no additional runway capacity was needed at all, as high levels of demand for flights in the south-east of England could be redistributed around other UK airports.
We have spent the past months looking at all of this in great detail, trying to work out which proposals would bring the greatest benefits for the whole of the UK – not just London.
Simply switching flights from the capital to other areas of the UK was ruled out, on the basis that it was not clear how it could legally be achieved – all our airlines and most airports are private sector companies – and that it would likely lead to fewer long-haul connections in total to the nation as a whole and would be a less carbon-efficient system.
A number of options for airport expansion in the regions were also considered, but ruled out, mainly because regional airports currently have more than enough room to grow without the need for further runways.
The result was that we identified three projects – one at Gatwick and two at Heathrow – as being the most credible options to increase the UK’s aviation capacity. The big question we now have to ask is which of these projects is best? Which will deliver better international connections for business and individuals in the UK’s nations and regions?
The good news is that the UK’s larger regional airports are doing well, either growing or maintaining their route networks during the recession. More recently, in the first nine months of this year, passenger numbers have grown quickly at the largest regional airports. A number of these airports are also seeing the development of new or strengthened international services.
Yet the number of domestic connections to London has declined in recent years and is predicted to fall further. Some of our forecasts suggest that in 2040 Heathrow could see just four domestic routes, down from the seven served currently.
This is why we believe that the UK’s international and regional connectivity has the best chance of being strengthened through expansion at one of our short-listed sites. Expansion at Heathrow or Gatwick would enable existing links to be protected and strengthened, and would provide opportunities for cities currently not served by these airports to gain new direct services. This would ensure stronger links to London for passengers from across the UK, as well as better access to a large number of international routes from those airports, stimulate growth across the regions of the UK and the economy as a whole.
Developing new aviation capacity in the south-east of England – if done in the right way – has the potential to benefit everyone in all areas of the country. It’s getting it right that is now of most concern to the Airports Commission as we enter the final phase of our work.
We are not just focused on people who work in the City of London. Whether you are a manufacturer in Manchester, a student in Sheffield or a fund manager in Edinburgh, we want your voices to be heard so that we can do our best for the whole of the UK.
• Sir Howard Davies is chairman of the Airports Commission
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