Why Government must get its act together on aviation, not simply on Heathrow/Gatwick

Wherever the new tarmac goes in the South East, it will take a decade or so before aircraft land on it.

Ministers have got themselves into an embarrassing pickle over whether to build a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. As the BBC’s Nick Robinson wryly observed on Twitter last Thursday, they have gone from “No Ifs, no buts” to “If” and “But” and “Er, we’ll get back to you…”

And, as Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin assures us, none of this has anything at all to do with “that election” for London Mayor coming up in May. Of course not! The very idea!

Sorry, Patrick, but it is time for Government get its act together on airport capacity in the South East. It is also time for Ministers to get their act together on a host of other issues facing aviation.

Wherever the new tarmac goes in the South East, it will take a decade or so before aircraft land on it. Aviation will not stand still in that time. And commerce will not stand still either. UK businesses already need new routes to connect with existing and emerging markets and that need will only increase. We can’t wait ten years to address these needs.

Airports like Birmingham and Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff, - and, for freight, East Midlands - all these are international gateways to the UK in their own right and they deserve to be treated as such. Along with Stansted in the South East, they also have spare capacity.

Technological advances in the size and weight of planes like the A350 and the B787 can help re-write the script about the economics of routes from different airports. In other words there is real potential for new direct overseas connections from our regions which could not only address over reliance on the south east but help rebalance the economy - as all parties love to talk about these days.

So Ministers should respond to Labour’s call for the National Infrastructure Commission to look at improving road and rail access to these International gateways. Let’s get Manchester Airport to join Birmingham Airport as a station on the HS2 line. Let’s get the West Anglia Lines upgraded to improve rail services to Stansted Airport.

This doesn’t let the Government off deciding where to put a new runway in the South East. Ministers still need to grasp that nettle. But neither should they see the potential of international air gateways in the regions as a side issue.

Likewise, the real environmental challenges facing aviation should not be an excuse for Government to put off difficult decisions for political expediency. They should encourage the government to act now. Ministers should agree to a new Ombudsman for residents affected by noise from airports.

They should also do more to back Sustainable Aviation – the partnership which brings together airlines, airports, airspace managers, manufacturers, unions and many more. Through the development of more sustainable fuels, better airspace management and other initiatives, SA’s Carbon Road Map projects to deliver passenger growth to 2050 whilst taking net CO2 to half the 2005 level. Noise levels can be dramatically reduced too – but all this requires clarity and proactivity by government about the regulatory frameworks in which it wants aviation to operate. At the moment that clarity is absent.

With aviation already accounting for 6% of greenhouse gas emissions there is an environmental imperative for government to act.  With the aviation industry worth £50bn in GDP, supporting around a million jobs and bringing in over £6bn in tax, there is an economic one too. That is why Government action is also needed to fill the skills gap that hampers the development of the aviation supply chain in the UK. Further delays only holds back the creation of thousands more high-skilled jobs for the future.  

Aviation brings people together. It fosters direct face to face contact and understanding between peoples across the globe in a way no other mode of transport ever has. The environmental challenges and economic it poses are also real ones. The need to address those underpins the four tests against which Labour will judge any decision the Government finally makes on runways. And it is why aviation policy must promote growth across the UK not just in the South East.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.