UK Aviation-room to grow? A conversation with Lord Adonis


One of the most challenging issues for the UK aviation sector currently is a lack of clear Government policy on the importance of the industry to support Britain’s economic recovery and growth. Wrapped up in this is the question of how best to use existing airport capacity and the contentious topic of additional runways in the south east of England.

The industry does itself no favours in publicly espousing a variety of different views about the right solution.  There is such a chorus of diverse voices.  Different airports, different airlines, frequently saying different things. Music to the ears of politicians. A ready excuse for inaction.   Individual agendas may have a greater or lesser amount of legitimacy but what is right for the UK overall?

Add to this the Governments recent announcement that it is to set up an independent commission to look at airport capacity and it’s an opportune moment to reflect on what is at stake.

A man with clear views on the topic is Lord Adonis, former Secretary of State for Transport, under the previous Labour Government.  He will be discussing the issues at this year’s World Travel Market at London in November.

I caught up with him recently to get a flavour of what we can expect to hear.

There is much discussion about a proposed new estuary airport to the east of London, nick named “Boris Island”, after the Mayor of London who supports the idea. “It will be a big stretch to make it work” Adonis told me. “The issue goes back to the 70’s and the cancellation of Maplin, a big mistake in retrospect”.

Maplin Sands was an ill fated project to build an airport also in the Thames Estuary. “It had consent and was in the process of being constructed. We’ve had to make do make do and mend ever since”

Adonis sees a third runway at Heathrow as “the only immediately viable option” to provide urgently needed capacity to protect London’s gateway airport status and to fund airlines’ need to make connections between flights at the same airport.

“It’s not ideal, but we need the extra capacity now, given the constraints”

He believes the Government should appoint an independent review to look at all options and depoliticise the process.

Adonis says he is “not instinctively one to duck decisions”, he green lighted a third runway at Heathrow when Labour was in power, but acknowledges time was lost in the 2003-2009 period. Labour is now itself against a third runway but “calling for consensus on the way forward and would support an independent review”

He also highlights another thorny issue-the failure to have a “joined up” transport policy-coordinating and optimising road, rail and air links. He cites the example of Frankfurt which recently opened a new runway and has great high speed rail links.

If it can be done in Germany why can’t it be done in the UK!

Mixed mode (using both parallel runways at Heathrow for a mix of take offs and landings rather than dedicating each to one or the other) will “provide capacity and resilience”

The idea of using RAF Northolt, to the north of Heathrow as a type of overspill airport, perhaps for some short haul flights, is something Lord Adonis finds “Intriguing. It could be well worth looking at. Lots of issues for someone to get into”

After the sleepy weeks of summer, the autumn could prove a time for fractious discussions on these very important issues.

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