ITC considers the way forward in aviation

What is the way forward for the UK’s Aviation strategy?

SimonThe Occasion

Aviation policy in Britain is at a crossroads. As the government shapes its vision for the future of UK Aviation, key questions remain open. These include whether the UK should retain a major hub airport, how to cope with pressure on aviation capacity in South-East England, the role of regional airports in future strategy, the location of future aviation investment, and how to anticipate future patterns of demand. A better understanding of these issues is crucial if we are to adopt a bold and successful aviation policy for the benefit of the British economy and future generations. In response to these issues the ITC is developing a major independent research project investigating the way forward for the UK’s aviation strategy, and to mark this launch the Commission hosted an Evening Symposium with leading experts on 19th April 2012.

More than 50 senior delegates attended the event, and Dr Stephen Hickey, who heads the ITC’s aviation steering group, chaired the debate. Delegates listened to a highly distinguished panel comprising: Baroness Jo Valentine, Chief Executive of London First; Huw Thomas, Partner at Foster & Partners; John Morris, Head of Industry Affairs at Birmingham Airport; and John Stewart, Chairman of HACAN Clear Skies. Renowned architect and ITC Patron Sir Terry Farrell, as well as Colin Matthews CBE, Chief Executive of BAA, offered expert responses to the speeches.


What is the way forward for the UK’s Aviation strategy? – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Baroness Valentine argued that London’s export-driven economy was reliant on good air connectivity to emerging market destinations. She noted that a lack of capacity at London’s airports was resulting in competitive disadvantages, with fewer direct flights to emerging market cities from Britain than from other major European nations. In the short term she recommended solving this capacity problem using mixed-mode operations at Heathrow, with noise levels managed by an independent regulator; in the medium term she argued that additional runways at London’s main hub airport would be essential.
  • Huw Thomas agreed that Britain requires a global hub airport if we are to make ourselves an attractive destination for trade with the developing world. He noted that south-east England was projected to experience increasing population growth, placing added pressure on aviation infrastructure. To compete for global trade and business, he argued that a next generation global hub airport was needed that could provide additional passenger and freight capacity, as well as enjoy good connectivity to National and European logistics infrastructure. Heathrow was not the long-term answer, he suggested, since its flightpaths crossed central London; rather a new hub airport should be built on the Hoo Peninsula.
  • John Morris agreed that an aviation capacity shortfall existed in the SE, but argued that the only immediate solution was to distribute supply across Britain. A multi-airport aviation strategy was necessary, he recommended, which included more point-to-point routes, and rebalance of supply and demand. Heathrow, even with a third runway, he claimed, would have a diminishing role in UK aviation needs, as four or more runways would be required for the ‘super airport’ to which BAA aspired – something had been ruled out. Mr Morris argued that airports such as Birmingham with substantial spare passenger capacity could be employed immediately in politically acceptable ways, while at the same time reducing road and rail congestion caused by travellers from outside London connecting to London airports. This approach, he claimed, would free London’s main airport for London.
  • John Stewart criticized the dominant focus on economic needs, arguing that London was already the best-connected city in the world, and asking that more weight be given to social and environmental issues such as noise pollution. He suggested that much more could be done to improve existing capacity without building major new infrastructure, and criticized assumptions that he believed were wrongly based on current trends, pointing instead to challenges including rising fuel costs, the changing nature of hub airports, and the impact of technology on reducing business travel. He welcomed the ITC’s independent review of aviation strategy and suggested areas it should investigate.
  • Sir Terry Farrell offered a response by noting the complexity of Britain’s aviation problem and the need for an evolutionary solution. Using his experience shaping a number of London infrastructure projects, Sir Terry explained that the key problem in the decision about a London hub was one of geography. The economic centre of England lay to the north and west of London, a factor that would be reinforced by High Speed 2 and Crossrail. A transport super-hub could appear in this region, he noted, adding that the nature of aviation hubs was changing, and that incremental change was likely.
  • Colin Matthews responded by highlighting the practicalities of aviation economics. He argued that long-haul carriers preferred using the Heathrow hub because of its advantages for transfer traffic and increased passenger load. As a result capacity problems at Heathrow were resulting in a loss of traffic to European hubs, not redistribution to other London airports. Any review of aviation policy, he added, needed to include Heathrow expansion to be credible.


Key issues raised in discussion: 

  • Aviation strategy will need to be multilayered. A number of guests suggested that there was no single solution to current aviation problems, and that policy would need to combine a number of options, reflecting changing needs across different timescales and geographies. It was possible, some suggested, that an incremental approach to solving capacity shortages would be necessary.
  • Good ground connectivity to airports is critical. Various attendees highlighted the importance of ensuring that airports were well connected to good road and rail links, particularly at a national hub or super-hub. Only then could the benefits of good aviation connectivity be transferred to regional and city economies.
  • Obstacles to building a new super-hub. A significant discussion topic covered the challenges that would be encountered in building a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Some delegates questioned whether the infrastructure to serve a giant new hub could be constructed in a reasonable timeframe; others expressed skepticism about the acceptability of closing Heathrow and the impact of this on the west London economy.
  • Airlines have an important role to play. The significance of airlines was stressed by a number of guests, particularly given their impact on the economic viability of airports and the importance of airline alliances for hubs. Some attendees suggested that steps should be taken to encourage airlines to use different UK airports to free capacity.
  • Independent research can help develop better solutions. Several delegates noted the need for independent studies into aviation strategy that could help reduce the polarized nature of the debate. There was consensus that such research needed to consider all major options, as well as exploring UK aviation needs in the context of international developments and British economic competitiveness.