Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Runways decision stuck in holding pattern

Let me begin by making it clear: the following conversation is entirely fictitious and absolutely did NOT take place. It would be entirely wrong to infer anything at all from what’s written here, and certainly not that the Davies Commission report is anything other than an objective, independent appraisal of the options for UK airport expansion, free of all political considerations…

So, Mr Davies, we all know how hot under the collar people get about airport expansion and, to be honest, our party has rather got itself stuck in a corner on the whole wretched issue because of things we maybe shouldn’t have said before the last election.”

“I understand absolutely Mr Cameron.”

“And then there’s self-serving Boris busy trying to run his own agenda on the whole question... So, what we really need is a recommendation for future development by the end of 2013, but absolutely no requirement to do anything at all before the General Election in 2015. And if in the process we can neutralise Boris, that will just about tick all the boxes.’

“Yes, I see where you’re coming from…”

The Davies Commission report (http://tinyurl.com/obnq8l3) is one of those that pleases few people very much.  It’s most striking feature is that it kicks a decision on future airport capacity into the long grass for at least two years – in quite stark contrast to the relatively short time taken to gather evidence and draw up an interim report.

The Institute of Directors is among organisations wringing their hands at the way the report comes gift-wrapped not for Christmas but for political procrastination. Those welcoming the report do so generally on the narrow basis that it does at least acknowledge the need for more runway capacity and puts the Heathrow option firmly back on the agenda.

But let’s get real about this: Davies acknowledges only that one additional runway will be needed in South East England by 2030. By any sensible measure Heathrow and Gatwick are full now. You only have to see what happens when there’s reduced visibility at Heathrow to understand the implications of this: British Airways cancels its short-haul programme in response to the reduced availability of slots, making a complete mockery of the hub concept. Paris CDG has four runways, Amsterdam six, yet neither handles as many passengers as Heathrow. But at least they aren’t obliged to grind to halt if there’s a bit of fog or, God forbid, snow.

The most-effective option and the one that will also confer the widest economic benefit is, as most of us know but not all will admit, is to build two new runways at Heathrow. Those of us who fly from Heathrow have often wondered why previous plans for expansion have always focussed on destroying entire communities to the north of the airport, when there is land available around (or even over) the reservoirs to the west. If nothing else, Davies has succeeded in pretty much killing off the idea of a new and highly destructive runway north of the airport.

The Commission’s idea of doubling the length of the existing north runway to permit more intensive use is one of the report’s more interesting suggestions. But I’m not convinced that either this, or for that matter its ideas about eliminating stacking by insisting that airlines stick to slot times, has any realistic foundation. Both seem to reflect the kind of wishful thinking that those with no inside knowledge of flight operations are wont to espouse.

But two new runways at Heathrow should not be a licence for BAA to print money: if this is a national infrastructure project, it should be a partnership between airport owner and state – without the latter the former can do nothing, after all. And part of the deal should be that slot allocation should be capped at no more, say, than 80 per cent of notional daytime capacity.

Two new runways at Heathrow would enable the UK to compete fairly with Amsterdam and Paris (or would if APD were trimmed or abolished). but the case for Gatwick then becomes less persuasive. It may be the law of unintended consequences at play here, but forcing BAA to divest itself of both Gatwick and Stansted has not delivered the promised benefits of competition. Indeed, Gatwick’s owners are highly driven by the need to maximise the return on their investment, to the extent that operators of smaller aircraft, like Flybe, have been driven out. Gatwick – which is not by any sensible measure a hub – will, from next spring, offer even fewer hubbing opportunities than it does now.

So what about Boris Island? It’s hard to interpret Davies’s call for time for further investigation as anything other than a sop to Tories’ “leader in waiting”. Setting aside the immediate environmental considerations, its success would be contingent upon the closure of Heathrow or Gatwick (or both) and would demand the effective re-engineering of South East England’s entire infrastructure. The environmental costs in terms of transporting workforce and passengers down a de facto cul-de-sac every day don’t bear thinking about. No, let’s keep it simple and let Mohammed visit the mountain rather than vice versa. (See this interesting analysis by the FT's John Gapper – http://tinyurl.com/pjkudsd)

New airports can work (Munich is doing very nicely thank you) but a new airport for London would not be on island miles away from centres of population and economic activity: it would logically sit in a triangle with London, Bristol and Oxford at its corners. That, however, might not be such a great idea for the Cotswolds!

Davies was supposed to look at runway capacity in the wider context and the disappointment for me is the dismissal, in the short term at least, of expansion at Stansted, rather than Gatwick. A new high-speed (and that doesn’t have to mean 200mph) line from Stratford up the Lee Valley to Stansted, and then onward to the East Coast Main Line would have had the additional benefit linking the north of England and Scotland to the Channel Tunnel, bypassing the obstruction to travel that is London. Improvements and some new track west of the East Coast line would equally open up the Stansted catchment to Leicester and Birmingham and would do at least part of the job that HS2 is supposed to do (www.hs2.org.uk).

As for action on Davies’s ideas, my money is on no decision before a 2020 Election. Then expect a brand new commission and s new set of “answers” thereafter!