Published in the Financial Times – Maddox quoted
Take a low, slow flight over the southeast of England and it’s easy to spot the straight lines of past or present runways littering a countryside that has largely taken shape without a care for rulers.
Many of the airfields grouped around London were created before or during the Second World War, when the emphasis was on spreading assets – runways and aircraft – thinly to minimise the effect of armed attack, rather than on concentrating them together to maximise the transport and logistics benefits.
Now, the UK’s south-eastern corner has a patchwork of airfields that have blossomed or withered mainly according to local pressure and political whim rather than long-term, national interests.
In this context, the strategic thinking about airports unveiled in January by Boris Johnson, mayor of London, is to be welcomed. And, though it is narrowly focused on airlines, its author does offer business aviation the possibility of some spin-offs.
Mr Johnson commissioned a report from Daniel Moylan, deputy chairman of Transport for London, to inform the debate as the central government reviews the options for aviation policy – already limited by the axing of Heathrow’s planned third runway.
The report, unveiled on a perfect flying day in January, put the case for a new four-runway hub airport designed to compete with mainland European cities. “We risk losing jobs to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Madrid or other European cities if we fail to act,” Mr Johnson said.
There are other examples: the UK’s unfriendly policies are already driving away biomedical research, shoppers and students. At the launch, business leaders lined up to agree that industry, commerce and financial services also risked being located in Paris rather than London because airlines flying from Charles de Gaulle airport link directly to 224 cities, while Heathrow directly accesses only 157.
Apart from ruling out an expansion of Heathrow, the report does not say where all the airline traffic should go. The alternatives include expanding another London airport, a man-made “Boris Island” in the Thames estuary and a north Kent site near Cliffe. Mr Moylan does stress, though, that any option’s ground transport links must be considered right from the start.
The Moylan report fails, however, to consider business aviation. But private jets and turboprops have stepped into the gap, just as they have whenever overstressed or poorly administered airport, traffic control and airline systems trip up – for example, during the recent snow storms in Europe and the US, and the volcanic dust cloud last year. More business is being done at longer range, and it is no coincidence that the market for larger, longer-range business jets is doing better than that for smaller aircraft.
Mr Moylan also offers business aviation the possibility of freeing up Heathrow for general aviation, which has been almost completely excluded from the west London airport.
“Heathrow has a fantastic future,” he says. “There are huge business and freight opportunities at Heathrow that don’t get taken care of at the moment.” He adds that the rich swathes of London’s west and beyond would welcome premium leisure aviation.
Maddox Consulting, the transport specialist, is cautious. “If airlines deserted Heathrow, this could possibly create fresh demand for business aviation from affluent south-west London travellers who don’t want to fly from across town,” says Augusto Viansson Ponte, its aviation practice head. “Low-cost business aviation providers such as air taxi firms could perhaps find an opening as a result.”
And private aviation companies are wary. “If Luton suddenly reached capacity, then there could be an argument for more business aircraft using Heathrow,” says Patrick Margetson-Rushmore, chief executive of London Executive Aviation. “However, this shift would require significant changes to Heathrow’s pricing structure and prioritisation of business jet traffic.”
According to Mr Viansson Ponte, a new hub airport in the region “could prove detrimental to business aviation if the airport delivered significant improvements in efficiency, convenience and value for passengers. Travellers might simply opt to fly scheduled instead of by business jet. However, there are many hurdles to creating such an ideal hub, not least ground transportation constraints.”
And, of course, decades of policymaking that is even less joined-up than Heathrow.