Global trade will suffer without increased airport capacity

By Guest Contributor
March 8, 2012

-Paul Willis is head of aviation at consultancy EC Harris. The opinions expressed are his own.-

It is worrying that a recent study by independent consultancy Frontier Economics has shown that the UK is in danger of missing out on £14billion worth of trade from emerging markets due to its inadequate aviation links. Further research from the British Chamber of Commerce has also revealed that two-thirds of business leaders in Brazil, China, India, South Korea and Mexico are more likely to trade with France, Germany or Holland rather than the UK as they offer more direct flights.

As key markets in Asia and Latin America look to develop new trading partners, the government must ensure that Britain is at the front of their minds. To achieve this it needs to ensure our airports have the capacity levels required to help respond to the demands of these markets. As the economic and political hub of the UK, London is crucial to developing trade relationships yet whilst Heathrow may be Europe’s busiest airport, ongoing capacity constraints means that it currently runs significantly fewer flights to cities like Guangzhou or Beijing than Frankfurt or Paris Charles de Gaulle.

The government will shortly launch a consultation on the development of a framework for sustainable aviation in the UK. There are several options under consideration around how to create new capacity however the government is at risk of shutting the door on the most viable solution – expansion at Heathrow. The much discussed ‘Boris Island’ is an imaginative idea but the £50 billion price tag makes it almost prohibitively expensive and a lead time of at least 20 years means the trade race will have moved on long before it has even got out of the blocks.

Furthermore, opposition to a third runway at Heathrow is largely built around exaggerated environmental concerns that come undone under closer examination. Aircraft’s today can travel an additional 20km circling in the skies above waiting for a landing slot to become available. Expanding capacity at Heathrow will reduce this congestion and the time spent taxiing on the ground, enabling the airport to operate more efficiently and to drastically reduce the associated carbon emission levels. Local politics has also had a disproportionately negative impact on the debate particularly when it comes to noise pollution. In reality greater capacity will allow Heathrow to minimise noise levels by offering the flexibility to optimise runway use and airspace to mitigate these issues.

The government has already committed to investing billions of pounds into our highways and into rail travel and whilst this is welcome, it will have a limited effect beyond the UK. Heathrow is the only viable commercial gateway to the world and overlooking this fact and allowing the debate to be dominated by a series of narrow arguments carries a huge risk to companies up and down the country. Now is the time to show political leadership and make a solid, evidence-based case to ensure British industry can take its place at the forefront of global commerce.

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