Build, mend or make do? The economy and airports - Business Works
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Build, mend or make do? The economy and airports

Dale Keller, CEO, BAR UK The debate over airport capacity continues to rage on and we at the Board of Airline Representatives have responded to two Airports Commission papers to date, says Dale Keller, BAR's CEO. Our next task is to provide feedback on the 51 long-term proposals received by the Airports Commission. Unquestionably, business and the UK economy both need to keep London at the forefront of world competitiveness and sufficient airport capacity is critical.

One of the biggest challenges for the Commission is achieving objectivity on such a polarising subject, where every business or individual has a preference. The national interests must come first, the UK simply cannot afford to do otherwise.

the national interests must come first

Opinions fall broadly into three camps. First we have the ‘make do’ brigade, who feel there is enough runway capacity to share around, that environmental costs are too high and growth projections are overstated. Then there are the ‘menders’ who feel that operational enhancements and forced relocations are the way forward to provide growth. Finally, the ‘builders’ feel that constructing additional runway capacity is the only viable solution.

The results of a survey of our members unsurprisingly resulted in a majority view that building more capacity, where it is most needed, is what the airline industry needs to prosper in the UK. In fact, only one airline had reported any difficulty in obtaining slots at any other airport than Heathrow, demonstrating that there is currently no obstacle for airlines to grow at other airports if it is commercially viable to do so. Airlines have long gravitated to the principle hub airport closest to the greatest area of demand. In the UK, that airport is Heathrow.

Notwithstanding the need to step up the industry’s exceptional and constant improvement in environmental impact per passenger carried, the majority of airlines feel that expanding Heathrow is the logical choice as the best-placed solution to serve the needs of passengers, airlines and the UK economy, based on a combination of economic, geographical and risk-based considerations. There is no doubt that environmental guarantees will be vital in expanding Heathrow and yet it is understandable that the closer an airport is located to the community it serves, the greater the environmental impacts. Airline fleets, ground transportation and a host of other factors will all be very different than today by the time the additional capacity is operational. Every option involves trade-offs and the ultimate decision by the Airports Commission will be determined by the weighting given to each of the key tests and the balance reached.

more capacity - growth and improved resilience

Another aspect airlines are keen to highlight is that building more capacity is not only about growth, but the need for improved resilience. With Heathrow and Gatwick respectively the busiest double and single-runway airports in the world, it is already close to miraculous the throughput being achieved and there is not a lot of scope for further improvement. From an economic and customer experience perspective, it is hard to argue against building the additional capacity where it is needed most, at Heathrow and Gatwick. However, the majority of airlines would only support an additional runway at Gatwick in addition to, not at the expense of, Heathrow. Just last week, all three airline alliances publicly stated that they had no intention of moving from Heathrow.

Let us not forget that runways and terminals simply provide the capacity to process aircraft, passengers and cargo. The real enablers are the airlines who connect the world and meet customer demand. We believe that the airline view is surely one of the most important in the debate.

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