Monday, October 10, 2011
Without a new airport, British businesses will be left behind
Our inability to fly to new destinations gives European firms a major trade advantage, writes Boris Johnson.
United Kingdom – The Telegraph
Britain is in danger of being left behind
Good for Philip Hammond. Once again the Transport Secretary has shown robust common sense. First he pointed out that everyone already travels at 80mph on a motorway, and that it is therefore pretty silly to maintain that it is a criminal offence to go above 70. And now he has said what needed to be said about aviation.
We cannot go on as we are, with Heathrow as the UK's major hub airport. The place is bursting at the seams. Most of our rival European airports are expanding, and have huge scope to go further. Heathrow is running at 99 per cent capacity. That means you spend ever more time circling pointlessly in the air above London, with your ears popping and your plane burning kerosene and blasting sinful vapour trails of CO©ü, while making its presence heard by the hundreds of thousands of people below. Many planes are now waiting 30 or 40 minutes in a Heathrow stack. And the weight of traffic means that taxi-out time – the time taken between pushing back from the stand and actually taking off – is 18 per cent longer at Heathrow than it is at Paris Charles de Gaulle, 31 per cent longer than at Amsterdam and 40 per cent longer than at Frankfurt. Other airports have slack in the system. While Heathrow has only two runways, Amsterdam has six, Paris four, Madrid four, Frankfurt three and they are all only using about 70 per cent of their runway capacity. The result is that UK plc is simply missing out.
China's biggest airline, China Southern, does not serve the UK because there aren't enough slots at Heathrow – which is one of the reasons that it is not as easy for British business people to get to China as it is for our competitors on continental Europe. Every week, there are 17,500 seats on planes bound for mainland China from Frankfurt; 15,000 on planes from Paris; 11,000 from Amsterdam and only 9,000 from Heathrow. It will not be all that long before both China and India have bigger GDPs than the US – and yet we are making it harder for British business people to get to the future megacities from London than from our competitor airports. If you want to fly to Chengdu, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Xiamen or Guangzhou you can get there direct from one of London's Continental rivals – but you can't get there from Heathrow.
It is not just China: we are losing out on direct flights to Latin America, Asia and Africa because of the shortage of capacity and the greater ability of other airports to try out something new. Airlines flying out of Heathrow are reluctant to risk their precious slots by testing the market for an exotic destination; and so the Continental airports pioneer the new routes to these unheard-of cities, and derive the first-mover advantage. It is not just a question of people: it is goods as well. More and more high-value goods are transported by air, with air freight accounting for 25 per cent of UK visible trade in 2005, the last year for which I can find figures. In the same year, 71 per cent of Britain's pharmaceutical exports went by air. Those exports need to reach a wide range of destinations quickly and conveniently – and that is why you need a hub airport.
People can be slow sometimes to grasp why it matters to Britain if a traveller from Miami Beach spends a few hours in a departure lounge in London on the way to Minsk. What is the value to us, people wonder, of having this person temporarily on UK soil? The answer is that it is the transit market produced by a hub airport that creates the range of destinations that makes your airport the handiest to fly from – and that makes your capital the best place to invest in; to say nothing of the many tens of thousands of jobs that a hub airport generates in aviation alone.
Given the constraints it is under, Heathrow does astonishingly well. With only two runways, it is a daily miracle of co-ordination that it retains the title of the world's busiest airport; and its operators will tell you that all these problems could be solved if only we would do the "obvious" and build a third runway. That, of course, is the one thing that we cannot do. It would be utter madness. Not only are there already 250,000 people around Heathrow who suffer noise pollution above 57db, compared to 4,800 at Gatwick and 2,500 at Stansted, but the congestion and the fumes would be appalling on the M4 and M25. And – here is the key point – even if you went to three runways at Heathrow, you would still be smaller than our EU competitors. That is why Philip Hammond is brave and right to try to break the log-jam by calling for a new hub. The suggestion that this could be "Heathwick", with a high-speed train between Gatwick and Heathrow, is certainly worth exploring. It was discussed in the Nineties by BA and BAA, and it depends on how quickly you could move people from one airport to another, and how quickly you could build the second runway at Gatwick which is essential to the scheme (and which may not be universally loved in Sussex).
I stick to my view that we need to think big, and the place where you could create a 24-hour hub airport that would leave our competitors standing and with the minimum disbenefits to human beings is in the Thames Estuary. Such an airport would be an astonishing motor for growth in an area that has been left behind for too long, and it would entrench London's lead, for the next 50 years, as the economic powerhouse of Europe. If you look at the history of London and Britain over the last century, you can see how a failure to invest in transport infrastructure was fatal to long-term growth.
When London lost the docks in the Sixties, there was a collapse of employment and population as the ships went elsewhere. We cannot make the same mistake again.