Show Hide image

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

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.