While the runway debate drags on, Regional Airports have the chance to shine
Head of Government and Stakeholder Relations – Bristol Airport
Since as far back as 1943, when aircraft designer FG Miles and architect Guy Morgan proposed a flying boat station near Gravesend as the solution to the capital’s aviation needs, airport expansion in the South East has been the subject of heated debate. Several major enquiries and Government White Papers later, and the vexed question of where additional runway capacity should be located is still exercising politicians and dividing public opinion.
Against this backdrop the Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, was established under the Coalition Government with the brief to provide a definitive answer to the problem. Sir Howard’s report – delivered a couple of months after May’s general election – came down decisively in favour of a third runway at Heathrow. But with resignations threatened and backbench rebellion a distinct possibility, will the Prime Minister back Sir Howard’s recommendations? And what will this decision mean for the West of England?
Both Heathrow and Gatwick have spared no expense in their campaigns to win support for their respective runway proposals. Businesses in the UK regions have been courted, and many regional airports have publicly backed one of the schemes under consideration. But Bristol is different. Because of our proximity to the South East we do not rely on air links to the capital, so the scarcity of slots for domestic services to London airports is not a concern. For this reason you won’t see Bristol Airport’s name on advertisements on the Underground extolling the virtues of another runway at Heathrow or Gatwick.
That is not to say we do not recognise the importance of aviation capacity to UK plc. Air travel is a key enabler for international businesses looking to operate in overseas markets, and a major factor in decisions to invest in the UK. However, it is important that the role of regional airports is not overlooked, particularly given the timescales involved in planning and building a new runway even assuming political consensus can be reached. When making his recommendation, Sir Howard highlighted the opportunity for regional airports to make best use of existing capacity over the next decade and Bristol is well placed to fulfil this role.
Planning permission is in place for facilities to handle up to 10 million passengers per annum and completion of a second major terminal extension set to take investment since 2010 to more than £120 million once completed. While politicians prevaricate, Bristol Airport is on track to create more efficient, comfortable and attractive facilities which will offer passengers from the South West and Wales a world-class airport experience on their doorstep. This will help us win back many of the six million passengers from this region who fly from London airports every year, freeing up scarce capacity in the South East at the same time.
More can certainly be done to better connect people across the region to their local airport, and we need to make sure that surface access to Bristol Airport does not play second fiddle to expensive plans to connect Heathrow with the Great Western Mainline. Air passenger duty – the highest aviation tax in Europe – also makes it harder to attract and maintain important business routes at airports outside London.
But it is encouraging that, according to a recent Business West survey, more than half of local businesses believe regional airports should be prioritised for development over a national hub. The battle between London’s airports has dominated the UK aviation sector for too long and it is time to recognise that, for many passengers, there is another option in the shape of resurgent regional airports like Bristol. To make the most of this opportunity we need a level playing field in terms of surface access investment, a tax regime which does not disproportionately impact regional airports, and – most importantly – the continued support of businesses in our region.