Heathrow: best solution for UK air capacity and politically deliverable, ICE debate told

Heathrow Airport Strategy & Q6 Delivery Director Andrew McMillan explains why Heathrow presents the best option of increasing UK aviation capacity and why government should make a decision to support the Davies Commission recommendations now.

ICE London last week hosted a debate on the motion “This house believes that the Government must act quickly to increase airport capacity in the South East”. In reality the debate centred on the definition of precisely how “acting quickly” could be achieved.

As the debate made clear, this meant government either heeding the recommendation of the Howard Davies Commission and ploughing on with development of Heathrow’s third runway or choosing to ignore it in favour of revisiting the debate over development at Gatwick or elsewhere.

The debate was preceded by an interview with Andrew McMillan, Heathrow Strategy & Q6 Delivery Director who insisted that a fast decision by government to embrace the recommendations of the Davies Commission to develop a third runway at Heathrow was critical for the UK economy .

Interview by Antony

Why is expansion at Heathrow the best solution to the UK’s aviation capacity problem?

The opportunity for us is about plugging us into the world economy. London has been the world’s leading port for 300 years and we lost that position last year to Dubai – that is pretty significant shift. What Davies said was that the Heathrow option was the best way to plug Britain into that global economy and that it is worth £200bn in economic value and 180,000 jobs. But he also said it was possible to deal with the economic and community issues that development brings – with less noise and within carbon limits and within air quality limit. So as long as it is done right this is a really good option.

You have the support from the Davies Commission. Is that enough?

The proposal now has very broad based support – there aren’t many things you can get CBI and TUC on the same side of. There aren’t many things that you can get chambers of commerce from Lands End to the North of Scotland supporting. There aren’t many things where you can get the majority of people who live around the airport to support. That gives us a moment to do something.

We have a high speed rail network being planned - why expand in the south east?

It is hard to get a high speed train to China. If you look at the world economy 80% is going to China. In the next generation. Howard Davies was asked what do we need to do to maintain the UK’s lead in aviation and plug it into the world economy. He looked hard about how that fits with the national context. There are constraints in the south east particularly around the hiub airport which allows you to connect to the rest of the world like China. And that is because of the nature of the aviation industry. There is capacity up and down the country but constraints in the hub capacity.

Why do we need another hub

We already have a hub – that is what provides the long haul connectivity. But we are slipping behind. We have been spoilt for a long time But if that business goes to Schipol or to Frankfurt or Paris that is there advantage and we will see investment and export going with it.

Davies has ruled out a fourth runway at Heathrow – does that damage your business model?

The assertion that you need four five six runways is a bit of a myth. There are plenty of hub airport out there with empty runways and plenty of airports with lots of runways that aren’t hubs. What you need for a hub airport is a series of airlines to fly there and you need a demand. With three runways at Heathrow you get 740,000 flights – enough to get to 90% of the worlds GDP with a direct flight and that will keep us going for a long while. 

Davies says this solution will meet demand to 2040. Do you need a vision beyond 2040?

I think we need to have a vision for the next generation to make this stack up. We have delayed this for a very long time and this is about getting a great hub airport for the 21st century that will keep us going for at least the next generation. If you have the ability to see beyond that then fabulous. But 30-40 years ago we wouldn’t have been talking about high speed rail.

An estuary airport provides 24hr operation and the ability to cope with expansion. That must be a better long term option?

Many ideas have been comprehensively looked at by Davies. The challenge for the estuary airport is that it just struggles on some pretty basic issues – it costs a fortune and no one will fund that. It is in a very difficult place – very far to the east presenting huge problems to move everything there . Then there are other practical issues such as a huge sunken ship full of explosives, bids and environmental problems.

Having Davies support is one thing. Do you think it is going to be politically deliverable?

Yes. There is a very wide basis of support and a sense of momentum. Certainly there are many powerful people who oppose Heathrow expansion but there are also many powerful people that support it. It is very clear that the majority of people in the constituencies around Heathrow support expansion – that is why 100,000 people signed up to support the proposal.

Government hasn’t yet commitment to take action and the London Mayor is against it. That must make it difficult? Will it go back into the too difficult basket?

Big infrastructure delivery is always difficult in a country with a democracy. It takes time to get proposals right and to develop a degree of support. But when that proposal has been developed we get on with it very well. This is more than a London debate – it is about the UK position in the world. What this process has done is to get us to change our proposals to get them into a position where the Prime Minister can back them and take the tough decisions.

Howard Davies has put some pretty tough constraints in place not least a curfew on flights between 11.30 and 6am. Will your business suffer?

There will still be a business. Davies approach quite rightly is that you cannot develop at any price – there has to be environmental and community constraints. There are not show stoppers. There are only 16 flights that come in before 6am – it is not a show stopper. A lot of this is about what the government needs to do and the intent behind these is very powerful – you cannot develop at any price.

Will they be watered down?

It is not a question of watering them down but of implementing them. Take the independent noise authority – that seems a pretty good idea but when you get into the details there is a lot to think about .

Does the VW scandal over air quality measurement put expansion of aviation less likely.

Air quality is a very serious issue – it kills people so it matters. We wouldn’t put forward a proposal that was going to bust air quality limits. We have the monitoring stations across London – people this is an important issue. We have had an air quality strategy for the last decade and seen a 16% reduction in the airport’s emissions in the last 5 years  We have been quite successful in mitigating some of the impacts. In London the real impacts are from cars a transport and if you shut Heathrow tomorrow we would still have issues meeting those air quality limits.

When do you expect a decision? When do you need a decision?

The prime minister said before the end of the year and that would be good. A clear decision would make a big difference and then we could get on with it. Ity is time for us to get on with it. If we get that decision by the end of the year we can have the run way open by 2015. 

If you don’t get a decision, what happens?

Any delay causes more knock on delay. The problems is that is adds to our problem of connectivity – our competitors getting ahead of us – that is costing us in the order of £17bn a year in lost trade so it has that affect. But Howard Davies also talked about opposition being the irresistible force that keeps bringing us back to the same question – that question is still how do we connect London to the world.

Are you thinking big enough?

We are aiming to build something that is really world class and moves on the debate about how you get growth and aviation activity balanced against the needs of the environment. In this country when we do it well and pout our minds to it then we are the best in the world. This is pretty ambitious stuff

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