UK’s Regional Airports in Fight for Viability
Britain’s skies are filled not so much with aircraft noise as with the sound of grinding axes, as regional airports vie for audibility during the latest UK government reconsideration of aviation strategy. Forever perceiving themselves as poor relations to major London-area facilities, some of Britain’s local airports (especially in central and southwestern regions) have taken to denigrating competitors, all the while proclaiming their respective “connectivity” to airline networks.
The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, a shotgun marriage following an indecisive general election in 2010, has begun formulating new policy after throwing out the previous Labor administration’s 30-year plan. A parliamentary transport committee, consisting of members of the lower house who scrutinize the Department for Transport (DfT), also has launched an inquiry into UK aviation strategy.
Meanwhile, the DfT has issued an “aviation policy framework” to an independent airports commission established by the government last year to examine requirements for additional capacity and to make short-, medium- and long-term recommendations. The document–covering issues such as aircraft noise and climate change–addresses a shortage of airport capacity in the generally prosperous, London-centric southeast region, while acknowledging aviation’s “importance to the UK economy, both at a national and regional level.”
By year-end, the commission must propose options to maintain the UK’s international hub status and to improve runway capacity within five years; it has until mid-2015–after the next UK general election–to release related environmental, economic and social impact statements. “Our main priorities [include taking] a UK-wide perspective considering the national, regional and local implications of any proposals,” said the committee, which defines connectivity as “the ability and ease with which [air] passengers and/or freight can reach a given destination.”
“A city’s economy is only as good as its national and international connectivity,” insists Paul Kehoe, chief executive of central England’s Birmingham Airport. Aspiring to host nonstop UK-Asia services, Kehoe argues that local airports cannot maximize capacity because of the reluctance of airlines to fly long-haul direct services other than from London Heathrow, the existence of bilateral agreements that specify to which airports given airlines may fly and often poor surface access.
Airport Consolidation Needed
He also claims that the UK–whose land area roughly equals that of California–has too many regional airports outside London and could better do with just eight: Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton (in England): Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow (Scotland, excluding highland/island airports that enjoy public-service status); and Belfast (Northern Ireland).
Friction between the management of Bristol Airport in southwest England and that of its neighboring airport in the Welsh capital Cardiff, both of which face challenges by recently resurrected private-enterprise plans for an island airport in the Severn Estuary between the two cities, exemplifies local rivalries common among UK regional airports. Following Cardiff Airport’s recent “re-nationalization” by the Welsh Assembly, Bristol Airport chief executive Robert Sinclair perhaps cynically welcomed proclamations that the government would manage Cardiff “at arm’s length and on a commercial basis.”
Sinclair claims the purchase price came in “well above market value” compared with recent UK airport sales. “Government involvement and support is highly likely,” he said, adding that Bristol in the past never worried about Cardiff or other airports that didn’t benefit from “any form of state subsidy or government support.”