Engineers this week urged the independent commission set up last week to assess the UK’s aviation needs to look beyond the row about proposals for a controversial third runway at Heathrow.
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin confirmed plans to set up an independent commission to identify options for “maintaining this country’s status as an international hub for aviation”.
He did so just three days after replacing staunch Heathrow expansion opponent Justine Greening who was moved to the post of international development secretary in prime minister David Cameron’s reshuffle.
The commission, will be chaired by former Financial Services Authority executive chairman Sir Howard Davies. McLoughlin said it would examine the “scale and timing” of requirements for additional airport capacity.
It will also evaluate how the need for more capacity should be met in the short, medium and long term.
Its first task will be to provide an interim report by the end of 2013 setting out its assessment of the nature, scale and timing of the measures needed to maintain the UK’s global hub status. It will also make recommendations for immediate action to improve the use of existing runway capacity in the next five years.
The commission will then publish its final report by summer 2015 outlining its assessment of the options making recommendations.
A decision about whether to support any of the recommendations is expected to be taken after the next General Election.
Engineers said any move to increase capacity will be difficult and urged the commission to look at all options.
“It epitomises the conflict between economic drivers and environmental sensitivity,” said one senior consultant.
“All of the solutions to resolving runway capacity in the southeast will be politically difficult,” said Fjøri director and aviation expert Alex Lake. “We welcome any initiative that is able to take an independent objective view of all of the options before us.”
Birmingham Airport chief executive Paul Kehoe also welcomed the establishment of the commission and urged it to “challenge the orthodoxy” and not rely on the “usual suspects to come up with solutions that we have all seen before”.
“This is more than a discussion and debate on London aviation capacity,” said Kehoe. “If we are to rebalance the UK economy, and stimulate new industry, then access to the rest of the UK needs to be encouraged immediately through a network of national airports.”
Opinion is divided on whether the best solution is to focus on developing one major UK hub airport - the role currently played by Heathrow - or to develop regional airports so large aircraft can fly directly to and from major international destinations.
“I don’t believe hub airports are as important as they used to be - aircraft are getting larger and carrying people longer distances and people want point to point travel,” said a senior consultant.
The consultant said he thought the solution was likely to be Heathrow operating with its existing two runways and focused on long haul flights, backed up by improvements at Gatwick and Stansted and a new airport in theThames Estuary to serve the east of London.
“There is a need for new capacity,” he said.
“I think the answer will be for a new airport to the east of London that has the potential to become a hub, but not immediately,” he said.
Lake agreed that new capacity is needed, but stressed that it was needed sooner.
“The need for additional capacity is with us now,” he said, adding that this could be created by “squeezing additional capacity out of Heathrow” by adopting mixed-mode runway operations, and by allowing airlines to operate more long haul flights out of other airports.
He also suggested that, as a “medium term fix”, a short runway could be built at Heathrow to increase capacity for internal flights.