The UK airport industry is in danger of being eclipsed by its European competitors if the Government does not increase airport capacity fast.
This view, widely held by aviation experts, is based on Government statistics which predict that demand for UK air travel will more than double over the next 20 years, from an estimated 180M passengers a year to as much as 460M by 2020. Airport capacity in the South East is expected to saturate and overspill in five years time. However, adding a third runway at Heathrow or a second runway at Gatwick is dismissed by those who have witnessed the laborious five year public inquiry into the proposed Terminal 5 building at Heathrow.
The Government set in train a 30 year strategy for increasing airport capacity last month by launching a consultation on a White Paper for airports. The strategy is expected late in the year, provided a decision has been taken on Terminal 5. Not fast enough, cry many political observers, who urge the Government to get its act together and hurry up.
They include chairman of the Government's Transport Select Committee and stalwart Labour MP Gwynneth Dunwoody, who believes that the Government must push through another major runway without delay because each 1M air passengers in the UK is said to be worth an estimated 60,000 jobs. Dunwoody believes that the policy of waiting for a decision on Terminal 5 before publishing a White Paper is anachronistic and wrong because it will not affect the crying need for new runways. A new terminal will only increase passenger capacity slightly above today's level.
'Terminal 5 is going to be full almost as soon as they build it, ' she says. 'The Government has to face the fact that a lack of air capacity in the South East is going to lead to a crisis.
'British bound passengers from the US will start using airports in France and Holland because it will not be convenient enough for them to use British ones. Some could end up using alternatives to UK airports as far away as Hungary.'
Dunwoody adds: 'Unless the Government takes aviation more seriously a lot of commerce is going to go literally over our heads. A great deal of money is at stake but there is no sign of the urgency we need.'
She is frustrated that proposals from the select committee to speed up capacity growth were 'rejected out of hand' by the Government. 'Changes are needed quickly. We need some clear targets and we need to make them public as soon as possible.'
Targets are expected once a Government study of potential sites for a major new airport in the South East has been analysed. The South East Regional Airport Study (SERAS), carried out over the last six months by Scott Wilson, identified 30 new and existing sites which would be feasible to develop. The identity of the sites is veiled in secrecy because the Government fears a torrent of 'not in my backyard' reaction from local communities that could scupper plans before designs are on the drafting board.
Scott Wilson's search of 'every square metre' of the Government's administrative regions of London, the South East and East to 'identify prospective sites for a major new airport' had as its basis only the 1993 government report: Runway Capacity to Service the South East. The report concluded that development should focus on expanding capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton.
The six month SERAS study, which looked at 393 runways in the South East from old military bases to little crop spraying strips in an area stretching as far west as Bristol and south to the Isle of Wight, includes more radical proposals.
The Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions would not be drawn on which sites have been chosen for further study. Speculation has focused on a small airport five miles from Croydon at Biggin Hill just inside the M25 in Surrey.
This is being touted as a new version of London City Airport for business commuters.
Another is a former military airfield at Manston in Kent, 70 miles from London, that is said to have big potential for expansion with a minimum of environmental damage (see page 44).
A Scott Wilson source said that the study identified areas that are low in population, have a need for regeneration, are close enough to a big catchment area, have good transport links and can be enhanced at minimal cost. 'That would mean it mustn't be too far from London and must be accessible to a major link, ' he says.
The importance of transport links could lead to some unusual choices for new development, adds Scott Wilson director Jerome Munro-Lafon: 'We are going to see airports spring up in places where there is more transport capacity. Parts of the transport network that aren't stretched. This could lead to what seem like completely crazy ideas in other respects.'
The technique used by Scott Wilson calculated how many people live in the area near the proposed runway, potential environment concerns, regional planning guidance, commercial potential and the threat of a major disaster such as being near to a nuclear power station.
Typical 'show stoppers' are too many people affected by noise or bad topography. A computer mapping system known as Graphical Information Systems number crunches all the data and produces a colour coded map to show suitable areas, from black for totally unsuitable to white for suitable.
The next stage is to 'brigade' into packages the sites taken forward from SERAS. DETR is expected to present three to five packages by the end of the year.
A typical package might include another runway at a major airport in the South East, a new regional airport and boosted capacity at existing regional airports. Halcrow Fox is managing the process while sub-consultants Arup, Scott Wilson and Halcrow themselves put together the options. Proposals from Halcrow's report expected this summer will form the blueprint for the next 30 years.
Size matters: make them smaller
Government research on air strategy progresses slowly but the aviation market is racing towards smaller aircraft at greater frequency and more use of regional airports.
A glut of development at regional airports all over the UK is expected as the market share of low cost airlines continues to rise.
Forecasts suggest their market share will rise from 4.4% to 7% leading to 28M passengers a year by 2002.
Seventy per cent of passengers are now said to be happy to take the low cost option for short haul flights if it is convenient for them.
And airports need to be adapted urgently to cater for the rise in low cost services, says Scott Wilson director David Farthing. 'Low cost operators have had trouble negotiating to change facilities at traditional airports which have a level of service that is expensive to provide, ' he adds.
Airlines such as Easyjet and Ryan Air are working with owners at regional airports such as Liverpool to develop facilities to process passengers more quickly. 'This will have a big impact on airport design in the future, ' says Farthing.
'Operators want more flexible airports that can cater equally for big and small planes.'
Peel Holdings is working on a £30M development of facilities at Liverpool Airport by 2002.
Liverpool's throughput grew from 600,000 in 1997 to 2M in 2000 and is expected to rise to 3M passengers by 2002 and eventually to 4.5M, making it the fastest growing airport in the UK.