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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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder