Boris Island fails to make Airports Commission shortlist

Blow for the Mayor of London as his proposal of a Thames Estuary airport is excluded as "there are too many uncertainties and challenges".

The interim report of the government's Airports Commission has just been released and it's ensured a bad start to Boris Johnson's morning. The commission, chaired by Howard Davies, shortlists Heathrow and Gatwick as possibilites for aviation expansion but leaves out Johnson's proposal of a new airport on an artifical island in the Thames Estuary ("Boris Island") as "there are too many uncertainties and challenges". 

While the report promises "further study" of his more recent suggestion of an airport on the Isle of Grain, in north Kent, this is an unambiguous snub to the Mayor. The commission warns that all of his proposals would be "extremely expensive", with the cost of an Isle of Grain airport (described as "the most viable of those presented") around five times that of the three short-listed options at up to £112bn.

It adds that they would "present major environmental issues, especially around impacts on protected sites" and that "the new surface access infrastructure required would be very substantial, with potential cost, deliverability and environmental challenges of its own". Finally, "the overall balance of economic impacts would be uncertain – particularly as an Estuary airport would require the closure of Heathrow for commercial reasons and London City for airspace reasons." 

The three options that have been shortlisted are a new runway at Gatwick, a third runway at Heathrow and an extended runway at Heathrow. The final report won't be published until the summer of 2015, after the general election, so expect the Tories and Labour, as in the case of tuition fees in 2010, to maintain a conspiracy of silence throughout the campaign. 

Here's the key extract from the release: 

The Airports Commission’s interim report published today (17 December 2013) has announced that it will be taking forward for further detailed study proposals for new runways at two locations:

  • Gatwick Airport
    • Gatwick Airport Ltd’s proposal for a new runway to the south of the existing runway
  • Heathrow Airport (two options)
  • Heathrow Airport Ltd’s proposal for one new 3,500m runway to the northwest
  • Heathrow Hub’s proposal to extend the existing northern runway to at least 6,000m, enabling the extended runway to operate as two independent runways.

The next phase of its work will see the Commission undertaking a detailed appraisal of the three options identified before a public consultation in autumn next year.

The Commission has not shortlisted any of the Thames Estuary options because there are too many uncertainties and challenges surrounding them at this stage. It will undertake further study of the Isle of Grain option in the first half of 2014 and will reach a view later next year on whether that option offers a credible proposal for consideration alongside the other short-listed options.

The Commission has not shortlisted proposals for expansion at Stansted or Birmingham, however, there is likely to be a case for considering them as potential options for any second new runway by 2050. In its final report the Commission will set out its recommendations on the process for decision making on additional capacity beyond 2030.

Boris Johnson attends a protest calling for no third runway to be built at Heathrow airport on April 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.