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Meeting skyhigh demand

Airport capacity is one of the most pressing infrastructure challenges faced by the UK, but what is the best way to improve our existing aviation facilities and expand capacity?

 Debate has often focused on the importance of airport capacity for Britain’s economy, but the issue reaches beyond our borders. London is a major hub connecting indirect destinations, providing a busy transfer point for connecting flights. This international hub status enables the UK to compete with other European cities, most notably Frankfurt and Amsterdam, and benefits the UK economy through better connections to the rest of the world.

There are different approaches to improving capacity, which broadly fall into two categories: expansion or improved use of existing facilities.

The dramatic expansion of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport provides a prime example of thinking big. The main objective is to develop the area north of the existing facilities, increasing the number of runways from three to five. The plan includes the creation of a new 650,000sq.m terminal providing the highest levels of efficiency, energy saving, technology and architecture. The impetus for this ambitious project arose from the importance of tourism to the Italian economy. Air traffic growth is currently constrained because Fiumicino is already running at full stretch. The redevelopment will increase passenger capacity, in stages, from the 35 million recorded in 2010 to 85 million by 2044.

This is the scale of ambition against which the UK must compete. Passenger demand and industry expectations are undoubtedly rising. According to the Civil Aviation Authority, UK airports handled 228 million passengers in 2013, the third consecutive year of increase. As an industry, aviation contributes around £18bn per annum of economic output to the UK and directly employs around 220,000 people while supporting many more, according to the British Air Transport Association.

With passenger demand rising as the economy improves, the pressure on the UK’s airport capacity and resilience will intensify, particularly in the south-east of England. The government has recognised this by establishing the Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, to examine additional needs and how to meet them in the short, medium and long term at a national, regional and local level.

The Airports Commission’s Interim Report, published in December last year, concluded that there will be a need for at least one additional runway in the south-east by 2030, as well as demand for a second additional runway by 2050 – perhaps sooner. The commission is taking forward two different proposals for Heathrow and another focusing on Gatwick.

The green light cannot come soon enough. A long-term policy framework that provides stability and clarity for industry is greatly needed.

The Interim Report also contains recommendations to the government concerning immediate action to improve existing runway utilisation. While new runways will provide the best long-term solution, there is also a pressing need to relieve congestion in the meantime.

Fortunately, there is a range of practical initiatives that can be swiftly taken up, as the Davies Commission has noted. Better technical design, utilisation of new technology and modelling of passenger flows in terminal buildings using computer simulation could improve efficiency and resilience. Even the time that aircraft spend queuing and taxiing on the ground can be reduced through the use of surface guidance technology such as that used by Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which helps ensure that aircraft take the most efficient route from runway to gate.

However, while all of these initiatives will help, they are only small pieces of a much bigger infrastructure picture. Ultimately, a more holistic approach is needed if the UK’s capacity shortfalls are to be properly resolved in the long term. This requires a collaborative, unified approach so that the UK’s infrastructure needs are planned and met at a national, regional and local level across all modes of transport.

Kevin Harman is the aviation business line director for Europe, Middle East and India at URS

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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood