The debate about the future of our northern airports is about to take off as a number of issues come to a head and the incoming government next May is challenged to decide on a new runway at Gatwick or Heathrow
Up North the big player is Manchester. Brimming with confidence as part of an airport group that also owns Stansted, it is seeing Airport City being constructed to massively increase its retail offer and freight handling capacity. It wants more international slots to fill its unused capacity.
Leeds Airport is considering a £38m investment package but road links to the A65 remain an issue. Newcastle now has a daily flight to Dubai but are concerned about the Scottish government potentially reducing Air Passenger Duty.
Elsewhere the picture is less rosy. Blackpool Airport recently closed altogether although there are hopes that it might be re-licensed particularly to service the Morecambe Bay gas industry. Finally there is Liverpool where passenger numbers are falling from 5.3 million in 2011 to 4.2 million in 2013.
When the Davies Commission was set up to decide on the options for maintaining the UK’s role as a major international hub, airports in the North and Midlands pointed out their available capacity to take more international flights. In contrast Heathrow has been full for years.
The option of including Birmingham and Manchester in particular in a dispersed huge hub that would also include Heathrow and Gatwick was dismissed by the chairman Sir Howard Davies. The reasoning was that airlines wanted to fly out of London and if attempts were made to bribe or give them an incentive to go elsewhere then they had other “hub” options around the world. Hubbing is crucial for airlines, finding the airport that can offer the best options for interconnections. The airlines take a global view and therefore the UK is in hub competition with not just Amsterdam and Frankfurt, but Dubai as well.
More recently the Davies Commission rejected Boris Johnson’s idea for a new airport in the Thames estuary which would have cost £90bn.
Final consultation is now under way on the remaining options which are two alternatives at Heathrow and one at Gatwick. Sir Howard Davies has been deliberately told to make his final report just after the General Election as this is a decision politicians don’t want to take. There have been years of prevarication already because whichever decision is taken residents will be up in arms over the noise issue.
It is on the cards that no decision will be taken by the new government. The Blair/Brown government, with working majorities funked a decision. If we have a minority government in May, how likely is it that a decision will be made? The Times reported Sir Howard’s somewhat intemperate reaction when I put this possibility to him recently. It was along the lines of what do you expect me to do? It was the understandable reaction of a man trying to do a very difficult job.
That won’t worry northern airports. Sir Richard Leese,chairman of Core Cities, told me recently that he rejected the hub concept, wanted the whole issue of a new runway in the South East to be put off yet again and wanted Manchester’s case to be considered once again. He pointed out that HS2 would have its own airport station which strengthened the case for Manchester solving the South East runway capacity problem.