Boris’s airport arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny

Boris Johnson’s attacks on the government’s aviation policy are becoming increasingly strident, reports John Stewart of Airport Watch.

By John Stewart of Airport Watch

Boris Johnson’s attacks on the government’s aviation policy are becoming increasingly strident. Earlier this week during a People’s Question Time in Hammersmith he said the government’s refusal to discuss new runways at London’s airports was “crazy” and its air passenger taxes were an “absolute disgrace”. He told the audience that the government’s move last year to scrap new runways in the South East of England was hindering London’s long-term competitiveness.

Boris’s views echo those of the aviation industry, elements within the Conservative party and sections of big business. Just over a month ago the City of London Corporation published a report from York Aviation, ‘Aviation Services and the City’, (pdf) which bemoaned the lack of capacity in the South East and called for a third runway at Heathrow, the expansion of City Airport and a new runway at either Stansted or Gatwick.

It is all part of a concerted effort the aviation industry has been making since the beginning of the year intended to influence the government’s new aviation policy which it will begin to scope out next month. The industry’s mantra is “a lack of capacity” in the South East. Its aim is expansion at Heathrow. Boris Island”, the proposal for an airport off the Kent coast, is regarded by most of business as an exotic red herring.

I believe their arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. ‘The economics of Heathrow expansion’, the 2008 report (pdf) commissioned by the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN) from the Dutch consultants CE Delft, was quite clear: a third runway was not critical to the London economy because, for business as a whole, other factors were of greater importance than the size of Heathrow.

Writing (about tax) in the Times (£), Camilla Cavendish spelt out some of the reasons why London is attractive as a base to international companies:

“…our open economy, time zone and language.”

There has been no hard evidence produced that this will change if Heathrow does not increase its capacity to match Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol or Frankfurt. In truth, London remains the best-connected city in the world.

In 2009, the last year for which full figures are available, more than 130 million passengers used London’s five airports – more than any other world city. Paris was London’s closest European competitor with just under 86 million passengers. It is the total capacity of London’s airports, rather than the size of Heathrow, which is relevant to business and tourists.

There is no evidence the government is listening to Boris. The transport secretary Philip Hammond has said that, when the government scopes out its aviation policy, everything will be on the table except its decision to scrap plans for new runways in the South East. What would really silence Boris, though, would be a clear statement by the Labour party that it would not expand Heathrow.

That would force the aviation industry to plan its future within existing capacity contraints. And Boris would need to find another issue to further his ambitions within the Conservative party.

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