LondonUnlocked

Transport Manifesto | London's Airports

LondonUnlocked, Transport ManifestoEditor1 Comment

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This is the sixth in a series of articles which will run throughout August, written in collaboration by LondonSays and LondonUnlocked, examining the future of transport in London.

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"London's airports are a mess." That statement is not just our judgement, but also that of Steve Ridgeway, Chief Executive of Virgin Atlantic and Easyjet Chief Executive, Andy Harrison.

That the sentiment comes from operators at both ends of the price/service spectrum is telling. The basis of their argument is that the stranglehold which BAA has over London's airports, is unfair and stifles competition. There is unprecedented unity on the subject, with BA, Virgin, Easyjet, BMI and RyanAir having spoken out in similar terms on the subject.

The Competition Commission has stated in its enquiry into BAA that it considers neither airlines nor passengers to be served by the fact that Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead (regarded as London's three main airports) are under its control. The enquiry is ongoing, though certainly it would appear that some form of break-up is in the offing with Gatwick being the most-likely sacrificial lamb.

Having one company in such a position of power is bad for business, bad for Government and bad for the travellers who have no choice but to use those airports. As has been widely reported, BAA's stranglehold has led many to believe that it is handled with kid gloves by both Government and the Civil Aviation Authority.

The solution to these challenges would seem to lay in the breaking of BAA's stranglehold - certainly doing so would provide a much-needed fillip to the industry. Only by introducing true competition in London's airport market will we really know where extra capacity lies, and where expansion is needed. Basing plans for a third runway at Heathrow on a skewed model is nonsensical.

Returning to the initial quote, the reasons behind London's burgeoning airport problem are clear to see.

BAA's last annual review states that 67.3m passengers passed through Heathrow in 2006/7. That number will only grow with the roll-out of a full Terminal 5 service. Experts have long argued that Heathrow is sited in the wrong location, a hangover from the days of the airport being a military strip, causing infrastructure installation and growth problems. Combined with the fixed low landing charges (forcing BAA to rely on retail trade and thus compromising space and extra security channels) this creates a perfect storm for London's main airport.

Therefore, there are two areas which should be considered a priority when considering the future of London's airports - transport to the terminal buildings themselves, and managing capacity once there.

As we have argued, until there is true competition between London's airports we cannot know what capacity is inherent in the current infrastructure. The Government's first move should be to approve the results of the Competition Commission's enquiry and open up the airport market.

Secondly, London's airports should be able to raise their landing charges, reducing reliance on retail trade and thereby improving the speed and experience of security checks.

Moving people to airports provides a significant logistical challenge. The Heathrow and Gatwick Express trains are to be applauded for their regular and reliable services. However, until the Government can offer more to incentivise journeys via public transport a significant number of people will continue to travel to airports by car.

Brian Paddick, Lib Dem candidate for Mayor, announced a policy of using Farringdon station as an air-terminal, allowing early check-in of bags before travel. Coupled with the re-introduction of such a service at Paddington, a significant shift towards the usage of public transport could be achievable. As has been shown in Hong Kong, the early check-in service offers a strong incentive for travellers.

Policies need to be geared towards 'full service' strategies - rewarding those using public transport with the option of checking in early, giving them more time to get to the airport, and reducing the constraints inherent in the travelling process.

Government must look seriously at the introduction of high-speed rail links between and from London airports. With the potential break-up of a BAA monopoly such schemes may be intuitive and championed by both airlines and airport operators. However, serious thought should begin now on their viability and cost.

There has been much discussion of introducing high-speed rail links direct from London airports to the rest of the country. Such schemes would be worthwhile not only for their value as part of a modern rail network, but also in meeting carbon targets in the coming years.

So, LondonUnlocked and LondonSays take the position that the Competition Commission's report into London's Airports should be upheld and airports deregulated. After a period of settling, city rail and check-in links should be reinstated, and high speed rail run to our busiest airports.

Finally however, there is another option, and one worthy of serious consideration: Heathrow-on-Sea.

The Thames Estuary offers a fresh start for London's airports. A true 21st century airport, complete with high-speed rail links to the capital and beyond is within grasp and favoured by the current Mayor.

Given its location, aircraft could operate 24 hours a day, and transport infrastructure be built to link to the nearest communities, all out of the reach of flight-paths. Given that the building of a third runway at Heathrow will cost £13bn, the £7.6 - £13.9b cost of a custom built airport makes it an appealing prospect.

Before any decision is made, the Competition Commission's ruling should be respected and the market be allowed to settle organically afterwards. However, with a positive Mayor in place and the myriad of opportunities offered by such a fresh start on the table, this may be the ideal opportunity for such a project to go forward.

Paris, New York and Hong Kong have all moved their major airports without significant hiccups, delivering better alternatives for business and consumers alike. The Mayor, and Government, should look to their examples and aim to improve on the experience which is air travel in today's London.

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Friday 15th marks our seventh and final article in the Transport Manifesto, concluding the series.

Check back here on Friday to see our transport recommendations and a plan of action for the Mayor.