Opinion from Lord Digby Jones

Act now on the airport issue or get left behind

Published Monday 22 October, 2012

This is Asia's Century! The Cities and Countries in the Developed World that show they grasp that fact by their actions and not just fine rhetoric will be the winners in the coming decades, providing jobs and tax-generating wealth for their people. So those cities in Europe that can develop easy flight connections between themselves and the great Asian Cities of China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taipei and Japan will win. A simple harsh fact of 21st Century commerce. Flight connectibility means business; period.

Given that some sixty percent of the load factor on a long-haul air route doesn't even originate at the departure airport in question, it is understandably difficult for people to grasp why it is so vital to a Nation's economic development that such flights are encouraged, indeed are vital to competitiveness, job-creation and tax generation in the 21st Century.

"Since 240 of the passengers on a Jumbo leaving Heathrow for Beijing today flew in a couple of hours earlier from some other country, why is it so important to the UK's economic survival in the Premier League that we have as many of such flights as possible?" goes the refrain. "Because of the other 160, that's why."

A Hub Airport facilitates the routeing in and out of inter-continental passenger traffic. Without that sixty per cent, the long-haul route isn't financially viable and so the forty per cent don't benefit from a point to point route from, say, London to Beijing, because no airline can afford to operate the route. Thus the European cities that can provide the hub for the transit of the sixty per cent, simultaneously provide the point-to-point route for the forty per cent and hey presto! that city grows and develops trade and commerce with the jewels of Asia.

So a successful hub airport for the UK is essential if we wish to maintain our position in the Premier League. Schipol in The Netherlands, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Frankfurt in Germany are all successful, large such hubs. Indeed more long-haul flights leave Frankfurt for China every day than leave Heathrow for that Country in a weekend. Heathrow is still the most active hub in Europe and London is still its most preferred commercial destination. That is a position that is ours to lose. If something is not done, and done quickly, we will be consigned to an enormous loss of prestige, of reputation, of job-creation and tax-generation; the Second Division looms. There will be no way back.

Accepting inevitable economic decline and an inferior status is one of the choices available and some will say that that is an acceptable course if it is the price to pay for fewer aircraft movements over our skies. The inactivity of so many politicians leads me to believe that they have basically accepted that, regardless of what they may say to the contrary. Always watch what a politician does (or doesn't do!), not what he or she says.

If we are top "do something" then what is it we can do?

Firstly we can build a third runway at Heathrow. The arguments for and against have been well-rehearsed but it does present the quickest fix although a recent study by an American University points to increased pollution levels within a fifty mile radius of the Airport because of increased ground traffic flows.

Secondly, we can move Heathrow to 24/7 flying with simultaneous take-off and landing. A temporary fix at best and a producer of huge discomfort for the neighbours.

Thirdly, we can make much better use of Birmingham Airport which is currently operating at 40% capacity. Build a high-speed rail link from Heathrow to BHX and treat it as another terminal with another long runway. This is worthy of greater investigation but airlines and their passengers will need to be persuaded that the time to train between the two is worth it rather than walking round the corner at Schipol or Frankfurt.

Lastly there is "Boris Island". This would deal with the neighbourhood pollution issue because of its location. Such a huge infrastructure project at this difficult time in our economy would provide an enormous boost for jobs and wealth-creation. The cost would not have to be borne all at once and this is a project that is, in any event, crying out for the involvement of capital from the private sector. Such a flagship project would be a huge boost for the Country in so many ways and removes at a stroke the capacity issues that blight Heathrow. The UK's continued pre-eminence in the European Hub Stakes would be assured.

BUT ... more people belong to The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds than to all the political parties in the UK combined. Just imagine the protest as bird breeding grounds are disturbed. The economic survival of our Country would take a back seat to avian survival!

... to persuade airlines to make the move, Heathrow would have to close. Indeed, the proceeds of its sale for domestic building land would make a significant contribution to the cost of building a new Island Airport. But with Heathrow's closure would come redundancies for hundreds of thousands of people; are the same MPs who are campaigning for no expansion ready for the alternative? They can't have it both ways!

... we will all be waiting well into the next decade just to get through a planning enquiry! Especially if past performance in that arena is anything to go by. Our Nation simply cannot wait that long. Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt must think it's their collective birthdays.

So that's the situation, those are the choices. What do I want? A brand new Island Airport has the greatest appeal although a third runway will "fix it" more quickly. What do I really want? For something to be done NOW. "Action this day" as Churchill once said. Hiding behind political excuses, fudging the issues, sacrificing on the altar of popularity the future jobs and tax revenues that will come with continued economic success for the UK in Asia's Century, all this will probably be the order of the day. Our political class will then have consigned this Country to the Second Division ... but then none of them, of any party, will be around to count the cost or take responsibility; that'll be for our children and their children to sort out. I pity them.

The jobs and the public services that come from economic growth depend on action ... and action now. Hiding behind the excuse that the Coalition Agreement prevents anything happening (by way of a decision as to what and where, let alone hold a Planning Enquiry or get anything built) is a dereliction of duty to the Country. The Nation needs a decision; it cannot wait a moment longer; globalisation doesn't wait for the fineries and niceties of domestic politics; Asia doesn't take prisoners as it grows and grows. That decision may well be "nothing doing"; at least we'd all know where we stand. Businesses can plan for a diminishingly powerful Britain as relative decline takes hold. Environmentalists will have certainty and so will investors and job-creators.

Imagine the grandchildren of today's political leaders asking them as they sit in their rocking chairs "why is our Country so weak, so Second Division?". I guess they won't hear the truthful reply "because we dithered, we didn't do anything, we failed to lead".