Stansted is the elephant in the room

Aviation expert Nick Coleman asks: Why is no-one talking about the third option for London’s airport headache?

Date: 25 October 2016

The government’s indecision on runway capacity in the South East seems to have run longer than a West End farce. The delays in making a decision hide a huge amount of strategic issues facing the UK around transport, economic growth and sustainability.

The truth is - we are asking the wrong questions.

We have already allowed the South East of England to become grid locked around both major airports, Heathrow and Gatwick. Whether by road or rail, we already have major surface access problems. This is not something that can be alleviated by building new roads and rail links, as there is no space for this without having further negative environmental consequences.

The elephant in the room here is Stansted. Why was it excluded from the decision making process by the Davies Commission?

Stansted is the airport with substantial opportunities for immediate growth, land, and less obvious surface access problems.

Bizarrely, the reality seems to be that Stansted was ruled out because there is a lack of confidence; it is seen in the same way as a League Two football team is in the Premier League. This is misguided.

Stansted stands to gain considerably from Crossrail, and will be linked to Heathrow in a quite reasonable manner from 2018. So perhaps London plc can get an immediate air travel bounce and stop the legal challenges for additional runways in the South-East by going with Stansted.

In addition, there is wonderful European feed into Stansted, so let’s not have this issue of the airport not having the status of a ‘hub’.

Both Gatwick and Heathrow have served the country superbly well for decades, and most of the support infrastructure investment went into these airports under the banner the British Airports Authority during the period 1960-1985.

We then handed the jewels in the crown of the UK’s aviation system to the private sector, with the establishment of the former BAA plc, later sold on to a Spanish Construction company, Ferrovial, who then presided over our three major London Airports. This was all well and good for a while, until the airlines saw the opportunity to tell the government that they were dealing with a monopoly in airport pricing for access to London.

The result of this intervention was the breaking up of the BAA plc empire into smaller units of private monopolies with Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted now under different private ownership and servicing the lucrative London market.

Was this a good idea? Ironically and incredibly the same airlines are no longer supporting the development of airports because, unsurprisingly, it will cost them more money if they build new runways.

So let me suggest a way forward to all of this.

We should simply rename Gatwick as ‘Heathrow South,’ Stansted as ‘Heathrow East’ and Heathrow as ‘Heathrow West’ and at a stroke kill all the airport snobbery.

Then force these airports to co-operate and build strategic alliances with different groups and types of airlines, and in the meantime look to develop airport infrastructure away from the South East, in Birmingham and Manchester, to re-balance the transportation infrastructure of this country for a sustainable 21st century.

Nick Coleman is an expert on Airline, Airport and Aviation Management at London Metropolitan University and a former strategist for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. He is available for media commentary. Contact Charlotte White: 

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