Does UK Need More Airports?

Reading the latest document from the Stop Stansted Expansion (which is excellent, and can be downloaded here) it strikes me that although there istechnically debate, nobody seems to be listening to what anyone else is saying.

Two of the graphics in SSE’s latest submission stand out so I’ve included them below. The first shows that UK already has substantially more commercial runways than any of our EU peer group or Japan.

The second shows that, with the exception of Heathrow there would appear to be plenty of spare capacity.

It seems likely that, as with the internet & computer software, airports can benefit from ‘network effects’ and that Heathrow has indeed been the prime beneficiary. So why, when Heathrow has so little growth capacity and other airports have so much, does the Airports Commission refuse to consider the use of Air Passenger Duty (APD) as a policy lever, by setting different rates for different airports? Similar approaches are used in traffic management (e.g. London’s Congestion Charge) and have been successful both in raising revenue and in controlling traffic.

I have to confess to having a personal interest in Stansted: my parents live about 20 minutes northeast of the airport. As I’m sure you can imagine, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Nevertheless, I’m against any expansion at Stansted for the following reasons:

1. It doesn’t seem as though we really need more airport capacity — rather, we need to be using the capacity we already have, better. For example, Southend Airport always seems pretty much deserted whenever I travel through it. SSE also makes an excellent point that in Asia one sees many domestic routes served by 747s or similar large aircraft whereas in UK instead we offer lots of smaller planes.

2. Stansted is really not a great airport:

  • it takes too long to get into London on the train (which is also unreliable and expensive);
  • car drivers cannot drop their passengers right outside the terminal, unlike most other airports (“for security reasons”, ostensibly, but in practice probably to maintain the taxi company’s monopoly);
  • there’s so much glass in the terminal buildings that the IRIS software can’t function;
  • there are no long-haul carriers and 92% of capacity is provider by Ryan Air and EasyJet.

3. Essex has a lot of really nice historic buildings and some lovely countryside, much of which would be under threat from any expansion of the airport.

It probably doesn’t help that all the airports are independently owned, either — after all, as with American politics the person who wins the debate (and the election) will be the one with the biggest bankroll, and in the case of the UK airports, that’s always going to be Heathrow. So the Airports Commission really has a duty of care to the British people to take that into account and attempt (at least) to be a truly unbiased arbiter. Some chance.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 29 July 2014

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