Airports Commission needs to look beyond London

Geraint Talfan Davies takes a long term look at our air connectivity

The Airports Commission was designed largely to get the UK Government off the hook of deciding on airport capacity in London before the next election. By last week’s closing date for submissions, it will have received voluminous evidence, much of it, inevitably, from vested interests: particularly airlines and existing airport owners.

The case for extending and improving the air connectivity of Wales has been made in at least three submissions: from the Western Gateway Group proposing that Cardiff and Bristol airports become a western hub of Heathrow; from MSP Solutions, a private consultancy that is advocating a new Severnside Airport, and which prepared a preliminary paper for the IWA a few months ago; and, apparently, from the Welsh Government, although its submission has yet to be published.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the these submissions, it is important that they have been made, for although the Commission’s remit asks it to take into account wider geographic considerations, its published discussion papers do not give an impression that this part of the remit is deeply ingrained in its work. It will need a hefty nudge from everyone outside the south east of England.

One of the obstacles to a better spread of air connectivity within the UK will be the primary objective set for the Commission by the UK Government. This is to identify any new capacity needed “to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub”. Everything else will be subservient to that aim. It is only then that the Commission is enjoined to look at the “national, regional and local implications” of any proposal.  Much may depend on the impact of one member of the Commission, Geoff Muirhead, who is both chief executive of the Manchester Airports Group and chairman of the Northern Economic Futures Commission.

To be fair to the Commission its published ‘sift criteria” long term options, in assessing strategic fit, does ask this question: “Does the proposal support the Government’s wider objectives and legal requirements (for example, support of national and regional economic growth, re-balancing of the economy or alignment with national climate change commitments and global targets?). However, in its discussion paper on air connectivity and the economy, published earlier this year, this regional economic aspect is notable by its complete absence.

It is not unreasonable that such a paper should major on the international dimension, but there is no reason why a consideration of the contribution of aviation connectivity to the “more efficient global allocation of investment, by increasing its mobility”, should have to crowd out specific consideration of the spatial distribution of air connectivity across the UK.

After all, its does cite a 2007 European Cities Monitor survey that showed that 52 per cent of companies consider international transport links to be an essential factor when locating business in Europe. Although aviation connectivity was not the most important factor – it was fourth behind skills, access to customers and clients and telecommunications. It must, too, be an ingredient in the second of these.

It also states that “business travellers account for a higher proportion of passenger numbers at regional airports than at any London airport other than Heathrow and London City, which may indicate the importance of these links for local and regional business sectors.” It has to be said, though, that this is not true of Cardiff Airport currently.

That is why it has been no bad thing that there are two proposals for improving air connectivity, mainly for south Wales. (This is one instance in which north Wales is significantly better served – through Manchester Airport – than is the south.) But so far, in the limited debate there has been in Wales, not enough has been done to distinguish between two parts of the Commission’s remit: first, to look at the short and medium term and ways of making best use of existing capacity, and second, to look at the long term options.

All Governments tend to be overwhelmed by short term considerations – one of the reasons for the Airport Commission’s existence – so it is not surprising that the Welsh Government should be focused, primarily, on making the best of its recent purchase of Cardiff Airport. But that should not prevent it from making its own assessment of the best options for Wales in the long term. It must not confuse the two issues.

The development of new strategic airport capacity – if the UK’s record on major infrastructure is any indication – may be 10-15 years away. That is a period in which Cardiff Airport should be able to rebuild its markets, or if not, then to prove how difficult a task that is. It now has the right, stable ownership it desperately needs, as anyone familiar with Welsh Water’s history will attest. Despite several ‘Job’s comforters’ my guess is that it will prove to be £52million well spent.

But it is when you go beyond the short and medium term that some of the harder decisions emerge. Both the Western Gateway and MSP proposals have ambitions to improve sharply the air connectivity of both sides of the Severn, particularly for business travellers. That may prove to be especially necessary if the centre of gravity of air travel in the London area moves east, either to Gatwick, Stansted or the Thames Estuary.

What is not yet clear is whether the Welsh Government buys into that ambition. It is not an issue that its various task forces have considered. For the big question, for the long term, is whether that ambition can be fulfilled by the existing Cardiff and Bristol Airports, or whether, if that is the objective, they will need to pool their resources to create one joint airport for both sides of the Severn.

The incontrovertible fact is that both airports are badly connected to the road and rail systems, in ways that cannot be improved without massive investment. Indeed, the Western Gateway proposals assume not only the abolition of Air Passenger Duty on long haul travel, but also a massive investment in a new HS3 rail link not just between London and Cardiff but all the way to Cardiff Airport. Those are pretty big assumptions, particularly given the current travails of the HS2 plan.

From a reading of the Commission’s discussion papers, Western Gateway will also run into some fundamental objections to split hubs. The Commission’s own discussion paper on airport operations says that “such attempts at ‘unbundling’, whilst attractive in theory are difficult to achieve in practice.” It adds that “it would be very difficult for a single airline to spread hub operations over multiple airports.”

The MSP Solutions proposal for a single Severnside airport serving Wales and the West seems operationally simpler and more clear cut, with a better fit with the road and rail system (especially if a relief motorway is built from the Severn Bridge south of Newport), more likely to be able to operate on a 24-hour basis and, crucially, affordable – if, and it is big if, Cardiff and Bristol buy into the long term solution. MSP argue that it would provide a scale of operation that neither airport could mount separately.

It would, however, have to surmount considerable environmental opposition. It also pre-supposes the establishment of a degree of consensus in Cardiff and Bristol, as happened over rail electrification which, realistically, may not emerge until after the Airports Commission reports in the summer of 2015.

Both MSP and Western Gateway have given the Airports Commission plenty to bite on. Proper examination will pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. While waiting for that report, we should not also have to wait to know whether the Welsh Government has a view, on the longer term.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

15 thoughts on “Airports Commission needs to look beyond London

  1. The MSP Solutions proposal for a single Severnside airport serving Wales and the West

    Wales and ‘the West’ of where?

    I gather that this Severnside Airport will be on the English side? I thought that one of the main reasons for purchasing Cardiff Airport was that Wales wouldn’t be a viewed as a serious player internationally if it didn’t have a fit for purpose national airport? What kind of message will it be sending out to the rest of the world if Wales doesn’t have it’s own airport linking it with the outside world. Again, those with a voice in Wales simply looking for the short-term easy way out and hoping to pick up some crumbs from the English table. Next up….Severnside City region.

  2. Encouraging more use of aviation is contrary to climate change targets. It’s also a poor way to channel money if one of your stated aims is poverty alleviation because it subsidises those that fly the most – the richest in society. And since there is a tourism (trade) deficit of £17 billion, perhaps counter-intuitively, there could be significant economic benefits to Wales from reducing air travel. All the evidence for these points can be found here:
    And George Monbiot’s latest blog on the folly of expanding airport capacity deserves to be read in the context of Cardiff Airport, Severnside Airport and indeed the future of air travel more generally:

  3. How often do you fly? Couple of times a year maybe? This year in my case 3 long haul and 3 european.
    How often do you travel to London or the South East of the UK? In my case about every 2 weeks.
    How often do you interact with the Internet? In my case 80% plus of my working day, every day.

    Don’t know how typical I am of a business traveller, but where an airport is in the UK is not that significant
    in the scheme of things.

    I assert that to get real productivity improvements and make Wales a viable place for business (today you have to be a few spanners short of a set to work in a global business and choose to live in Wales), an airport is a long way down the list of what is important.

    Just in case anyone has not looked at a map recently, Wales does continue north of Brecon. Easier to go to Birmingham or Manchester than it is to get to Cardiff from mid or north Wales.

  4. @ David

    Is there some confusion here? I thought the Severnside Airport proposal was to be located in the Caldicot Levels area which would justify the closure of Cardiff and Bristol airports.

  5. Clive King has a point here. I live in Ceredigion and 60% of my revenue as a consultant comes from outside the EU. Like him, I go to London (say every two to four weeks) and a few return flights (perhaps two this year and six last year). The great majority of my business is done on the Internet, which is OK on my one meg line, but a few more megs would be a very good thing.

    If there is a suitable flight from Cardiff, I’d gladly take it, but it is not an airport geared to business travel. Bristol is a bit better, but the hassle of getting there means that frankly, going to Heathrow is often simpler.

    So, either a serious regional airport (perfectly normal in Germany and Switzerland for example) which does not involve driuving through built up areas to reach or we carry on as now.

    My priorities are for improving the rail links and linking Wales to itself and for genuine broadbanf Internet in rural areas. There is a fine group of small start-ups in West Wales right now, but the travel / Internet side definately makes it a venture for the brave and those who do not mind interminable delays on the train.

  6. The clue is here: “One of the obstacles to a better spread of air connectivity within the UK will be the primary objective set for the Commission by the UK Government. This is to identify any new capacity needed “to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub”. Everything else will be subservient to that aim. It is only then that the Commission is enjoined to look at the “national, regional and local implications” of any proposal”. The “UK’s position” is London’s position. Why do we continue to subsidise that Great Wen? Why on Earth would we make Bristol the capital of the south-east (and Liverpool the capital of the north)?

    None of this is in the Welsh national interest. We need direct pan-European and global air links as well as many more internal flights: Cardiff, Swansea, Haverfordwest, Montgomery, Hawarden, etc. The pertinent green question will be solved when aircraft powerplants change from oil-based to sustainable fuels.

  7. I see a link to a preliminary paper where this is advocated ie an airport close to Newport serving around 10 – 11 million passenger a year. Fine. I’m sure they’ll be very enthusiastic in Bristol.

  8. @ David

    On 15th March this year, the IWA held a press conference launching their plans for a Severnside airport between Newport and Chepstow.

  9. David, For clarification, the MSP Solutions proposals was for a Severnside airport located on the edge of the estuary, on the Welsh side just east of Newport. (There is no comparable site on the English side of the estuary.) This would allow take off and landing over water, minimising noise pollution. It would be also be comparatively easy to line up the airport with the new M4 relief road (or even the existing M4) and a newly electrified London-South Wales rail route.

    Gareth, I accept that there is an environmental argument about the totality of air traffic. But the reality is that there is a chance that the centre of gravity of air travel could move east of London, seriously reducing air connectivity for Wales and the West of England. I don’t think any Welsh Government could react to that with a shrug of the shoulders. Air traffic in the UK is currently only slightly less over-centralised than our banking system.

  10. Ah ha….Geraint! It sounds like a cunning plan. And we can call the new Severnside Airport……’Cymru-Wales International’!

  11. Some random reflections…

    I’ve just finished a stint of about 6 years of continuous international project management with one of Britain’s banks. I chose to carry on living in Wales precisely because the exact location of an international airport is not that important once you lose the benefit of true scale on your doorstep such as that which Heathrow provides where flights to practically all major European cities have hourly timetables. At Manchester and Birmingham, you may get a daily or twice daily flight to most places but if you are travelling so much and so often that an hour here or there really matters, you drive the extra hour to Heathrow rather than muck about with Bristol or Birmingham.

    England’s regional airports really are not anywhere near in the league of Heathrow and therefore rarely warranted (for me) a small saving in driving time. Just because Bristol is awash with Easyjet flights to the Costas and Greek Islands, it was no use to me when I wanted to get to Rotterdam, Frankfurt or Madrid. Even when there is a daily flight, the take-off and landing slots for budget carriers are so appalling for business travellers that I just drove past the M5 junction and used Heathrow (e.g. take off from Madrid at 9.55pm (10.30pm with the inevitable delay) on a Friday night after a week of work meant a c.1am arrival at home in Cardiff, an earlier evening flight into Heathrow brought me home by 9 or 10pm). Quite literally the only advantageous place for me to live would be, say an hour’s travelling time from Heathrow or Gatwick, but I’ve no interest in living in the SE of England.

    I’m not saying that a proper regional business airport in Cardiff would not have been an advantage. It would. All I’m saying is that in its absence don’t assume that I’m automatically going to go to Bristol or Birmingham.

    A regional airport should be a regional airport. A business visitor should be able to jump in a taxi from a city-centre hotel and be there in 15 minutes and £15. The wider region should be able to get there in 30-60mins on good roads. In today’s corporate market you should be able to get to Europe’s 10 main business centres in the morning and fly back in the evening. Good connections with one or two major hub airports such as Schipol, CDG and Frankfurt for those slightly less conventional European destinations normally suffices and depending on your diary may tempt you away from driving down the road to Heathrow for a direct flight. I’m not convinced that long-haul is of any relevance unless there is a specific regional business link. If you’re going to the US, Asia or Australasia with business you’re not going for the day or even overnight so no-one begrudges driving to Heathrow, or indeed using a shuttle to a hub which is much underrated in my opinion.

    I may be being a bit unfair on Birmingham, and it may be closer to that ideal than I say, but even if I’m not it’s still the better part of 2 hours away for anyone south of Monmouth. I can’t see Bristol ever being a true regional business airport since its own proximity to Heathrow (and certainly that of the feeder towns on the M4 corridor east of Swindon) will always hamper it. It no doubt has a future as a charter and budget airport but long-term economic development strategies for South Wales and Cardiff should not be pinned on that one.

    If a Severnside airport could be proven to attract traffic from Cardiff AND Bristol (and therefore close both of the existing airports) and gain some scale and become a genuine regional airport, it may be a runner, but it’s a huge risk. If the travel infrastructure can be put in to get people from Cardiff city centre and Bristol city centre in that magic 30 mins, it stands a chance. But it’s a bit “build it and they will come” sort of thing.

    All that look likes over-engineering the solution to me…

    Cardiff can and should be a decent little regional business airport with the right investment and business development. There may be a little bit of ‘build it and they will come’ but a fraction of Severnside. If I’m not going to go to Heathrow, I want to leave my house and be stood in the queue for departures 30 mins later having parked my car relatively cheaply and walked to the terminal building. I need to go to Europe’s 10-15 key business cities and I need to arrive before say, 11am. I want to return at about 6pm and having landed at 8pm be sat in front of the telly with a cold bottle of beer by 8.45pm. My colleagues and clients from ‘X’ European city want to do the same in reverse but when they land they want to see a rank of taxis waiting to take them to their office destination or hotel in 15 mins and pay no more than £15. As a business traveller I’m not overly fussed how many shops are in the terminal or whether its GoSushi or some other franchised chain of food, I just want it to be comfortable and pleasant. If I’ve travelled so much that I’ve got a lounge pass, I want the lounge to be pleasant, quiet, civilised, etc. It does not need to be the Ritz.

    Build that and I will come.

  12. I see Birmingham airport has announced a £7billion to build a second runway and target 70 million passengers a year. If they pull that off Severnside is doomed since it would mean building a new airport one sixth the size of Birmingham less than two hours’ drive away. I thought Brum was too built up to allow that kind of expansion but apparently not. Perhaps Wales should open a tourist office and business centre at Birmingham airport.

  13. For my liking, there is too much volatility within transportation as a whole at the moment to take the risk with building a new airport. This volatility comes with the uncertainty over the fuel: the environmental cost, and the variability in the financial cost…but also a volatility in the context of travel behaviour – changes in fast-evolving technology mean that travel patterns are changing. For me this brings uncertainty to any projected air traffic growth figures.

    I seem to recall a recent meeting of members within the Civil Aviation Authority who, regarding a new hub airport in the South east, voted against any new-build, and in favour of redeploy existing resources (i.e. to other airports) as there is usable spare capacity in the system.

    I think that this should apply with Severnside; better to use existing assets while travel patterns (and hence predicted air traffic growth) remain uncertain.

  14. For nine years my late wife and I flew from little old Cardiff “International” Airport to Maseru Airport in Lesotho without it even being spruced up. We did so by flying to Schipol with KLM (before and after it laid on a jet) and from there to Johannesburg with the same airline before completing the international link into Maseru. We did the same journey in reverse order. In the early days we used Lesotho Airways planes until the service was replaced with South African Airways jets. If one added the hassle of travelling to Maseru and back to Llandeilo via Heathrow, by rail or by road through the dreaded Brynglas tunnels it was a no-brainer.

    By the way, Lesotho is much poorer than Wales and yet boasts an international airport through which business people do their business in the country. In the beginning the visitors were mainly European or South African. Towards the end of our time in the country they were Chinese who are now a more important trading partner than Britain. This is despite the UK having been Basutoland’s colonial “master”. In my own field of legal practice Chinese money is financing the construction of new dam for Maseru to go with the three constructed in the Highlands to serve Johannesburg. The contractor is also Chinese.

    I don’t know how we are going to sustain our social services at all (let alone free at the point of delivery) if we cannot find alternative sources for the primary wealth that was generated here during the heyday of heavy industry even if it was if siphoned off into Londonopolis. Maybe Carwyn Jones’ instinct informed him that we needed our own airport to fill the void by allowing investors to fly into and out of our capital to meet Ministers in much the same way as they are able to do with Maseru; albeit that, unlike Wales, Lesotho is a sovereign state. It now seems that Andrew RT Davies has the same instinct albeit it comes with the idea to sell it off to the private sector; the subject of another debate.

    As for travelling around the country out of Cardiff, I can assure people that as inconvenient as it might be to travel from Cardff to the north it is a piece of cake compared to travelling around Lesotho from Maseru. Even so, just as people living or visiting certain areas of Lesotho can travel through Bloemfontein Airport, for example, those who have no need to conduct business with the Welsh Government can travel to say Manchester or Birmingham. They can do so without putting up with the inconvenience of long delays at international border crossings in the heat of the African sun. I would not recommend Bristol Airport, the inconvenience of reaching which by road and rail can, surely, hardly be matched.

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