Breaking Travel News editor’s blog: Cameron abdicates responsibility over Heathrow

Breaking Travel News editor’s blog: Cameron abdicates responsibility over Heathrow

Tourism insiders were left shaking their heads in disbelief yesterday as David Cameron announced yet another review into aviation capacity in the south-east of England.

In a near total abdication of responsibility, the prime minister booted one of the most pressing items on the agenda into the long grass, appointing ex-Financial Services Authority boss Howard Davies to examine the options.

Aides made it clear this latest report would not be published until after the next election in 2015 - leaving Britain to muddle through in the meantime.

This begs the question, what exactly are our elected representatives for, if not to take these decisions on our behalf?

London Heathrow

The latest delay means the coalition government will in effect go through the entire parliament without an aviation policy.

But time is short. Heathrow is already the busiest airport in Europe, operating at full capacity, with 1,300 aircraft movements every day. Business leaders have been calling for more departure slots to access emerging markets in Asia and South America.

A number of options to address the shortage are already on the table.

A growing number of Conservative MPs - including, implicitly, chancellor George Osborne – have offered their support to a third runway at London Heathrow as a means of alleviating bottlenecks.

However, the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the idea, inserting a clause into the coalition agreement stating no runway could be approved during the current parliament.

This is also the official view of the Tories and rules out expansion at London Gatwick or London Stansted.

London mayor Boris Johnson has put forward the idea of an entirely new, four runway airport in the Thames Estuary as a way of boosting capacity in the long-term.

Short-term quick fixes – including boosting capacity at Heathrow through mixed-mode landings, or barring short-haul traffic from the airport – are also available.

The Heathwick proposal, to link Gatwick and Heathrow through a high-speed rail line, has been quietly jettisoned.

Another review seems unlikely to discover a significant new option – meaning the government is faced with a range of choices to prevent Britain falling further behind rivals in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

Lack of Leadership

That is what makes the latest failure of nerve so galling.

As Breaking Travel News argued earlier this week, a third runway at Heathrow is virtually inevitable.

If this is indeed the option Cameron supports, the prime minister should say so, putting forward the case for expansion. The replacement on Tuesday of transport secretary Justine Greening with a more supportive Patrick McLoughlin was a first step in this direction.

Of course there are problems with this plan. Residents in the flight paths of west London would suffer, for example. Compulsory purchase orders would also be needed to acquire land for development.

However, environmental concerns carry less weight than they once did, with the European Union Emission Trading Scheme prodding airlines toward cleaner aircraft.

These problems are also surmountable, unlike those with a new estuary airport.

If Cameron is unable to muster the political will to build a third runway at Heathrow, what chance for a whole new airport?

The £40 billion price tag makes the development impossible without private money – most likely extracted from airlines using London Heathrow. Why would carriers here wish to pay for the retirement of the existing base in return for an unproven development on the other side of London?

The chief advocate of the scheme – Boris Johnson - is merely using it to divert attention from Heathrow. With many conservative voting Londoners in the flight path, the mayor is playing for time, knowing as well as anybody the fantasy island will never be built.

When he leaves office, who will support the estuary airport then? Certainly nobody from the aviation industry or with significant political office.

On top of this, environmentalists can delay the project for years, while the location - in the flight path to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam - is inherently unsuitable.

Action

As expected Boris Johnson had a pithy observation earlier, branding the latest developments “a fudge-arama”. This is not too far from the truth.

The options are on the table, while the clock is ticking. All that remains is for David Cameron to make a choice: not in 2015, now.