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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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.