John Stewart of AirportWatch explains why even other Tories, from Gideon Osborne down, are privately briefing against Boris Island: it’s a ridiculous idea.
John Stewart is the chair of AirportWatch
Boris Johnson’s persistent lobbying for an off-shore airport seems to be causing confusion within Conservative circles. In both yesterday’s Sunday Times, and in Friday’s FT, there were prominent articles claiming that the chancellor George Osborne, the transport secretary Justine Greening and the prime minister’s influential strategic adviser, Steve Hilton, were warming to the idea of an estuary airport.
In today’s Times (£) the government seems to be fighting back.
The paper reports that:
“Officials have privately slapped down Boris Johnson’s campaign for a four-runway airport to the east of London…
“Ministers are thought to be dubious.”
The carefully-placed article, exclusive to the Times, looks like an attempt to distance the government from the mayor’s speech to the Institute of Directors today which his aides have been using as proof that the idea of an estuary airport is gaining traction.
The mixed messages are symptomatic of the confusion within the aviation industry and business more generally as to the best way forward now that Heathrow expansion is off the agenda. The announcement earlier this month by shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle that Labour no longer supported a third runway has probably killed off any plans to expand Heathrow for good.
The flurry of lobbying by the aviation industry in the early autumn calling for new runways in the South East was seen as coded support for a third runway at Heathrow. With that option now closed off, the industry is not clear what it should unite behind.
Many in the industry and the wider business community have real doubts about an estuary airport. ‘Aviation Services and the City’, a report published in January, commissioned by the City of London Corporation from consultants York Aviation found that for most city firms an estuary airport was unrealistic and on the wrong side of London.
There is also real doubt amongst the business community whether, at £50 million plus, it will ever see the light of day. And certainly not in the near future.
Business also recognises there would be the problem of what to do about Heathrow. The market does not exist for two hub airports in the South East. A four runway hub airport in the Estuary would almost certainly require the closure of Heathrow. At least 74,000 jobs would be lost. West London has become too dependent on the airport but the reality is Heathrow is too big to fail.
Boris, the extrovert showman, is skilled at giving the impression that business is clamouring for a new airport. However, there is no evidence that, in these recessionary times, airport expansion is top of the business agenda.
The evidence which does exist shows that what business and industry does want is frequent services to the world’s key business destinations. Those are already provided by Heathrow which has more than double the number of flights to the major business centres than its two nearest rivals, Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle, put together.
Moreover, with a third runway off the agenda at Heathrow, the airlines are being forced to take a long, hard look at how to use the landing slots on the existing runways most profitably.
It will mean replacing short-haul leisure flights with long-haul flights to the key business destinations in the emerging markets of Asia, Africa and South America. It is the reason why British Airways recently took over BMI. It wanted to use BMI’s Heathrow slots to serve more inter-continental destinations.
If no further runways are built in the South East, market mechanisms will come into play. They will ensure that Heathrow becomes predominately a business airport. That perhaps doesn’t match the glamour of a floating airport in the estuary, promoted by a mayor seeking re-election and designed by a famous architect.
But is probably the more business-like way to proceed.
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• Greening orders no opt-out for clothes-penetrating scanners – Alex Hern, November 21st 2011
• Aviation industry turn on Greening over her opposition to third runway – John Stewart, October 17th 2011
• The challenges facing new transport secretary Justine Greening – Richard Hebditch, October 17th 2011
• How will Labour react to news BA have given up on third runway? – John Stewart, June 22nd 2011
• Boris’s airport arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny – John Stewart, March 18th 2011