Where can we fly from? aviation capacity – the tricky question

It is fairly apparent that British aviation strategy typifies the British ability to agree on a long term strategy that plots a course everyone can agree on…

There is a developing consensus that transport needs better long term planning with an agreed narrative and coherent long term strategy – i have written about this once or twice and will continue to do so, i would happily write the overarching long term strategy as well if invited to do so!!

Aviation is the big topic of the day. With the imminent Government reshuffle being touted as Cameron’s opportunity to change transport secretary (again!) to give Justine Greening the space to avoid a constituency backlash (in Putney, right on the flightpath into Heathrow) over Heathrow expansion.  There seems to have been a shift by the Government to return to the possibility of a 3rd runway at Heathrow to provide additional capacity close to London and keep Heathrow in the game as a global hub.

This does seem somewhat short-termist and futile.  One additional runway will not create a seismic unlocking of additional aviation capacity.  Why not 2 more runways?  Because it would decimate a large area and also of course put a lot more flights over central London – bad politically…

I don’t intend to get into the debate on Boris Island.  I wrote in favour of big ideas and bold long term thinking which Boris Island demonstrates, but in terms of practicality and viability Boris Island is an absolute no. no no no.

If we want to focus on one major national airport supported by a number of key major airports then we need to be bolder but perhaps a bit more practical as well. Aviation like most other policy areas is dominated by a London-centric focus that says a national airport must be as close to central London (geographically) as possible. Heathrow and Gatwick cannot go on growing.  Stansted could grow both it and Gatwick could take a second runway and significantly improved surface access by public transport.

But my proposition is this: Birmingham Airport should become the national airport. 2km from the current airport will be the high speed rail interchange station, you already have the West Coast main line serving it, the NEC is next door, as is the M42 and the A45.  Birmingham Airport can be easily reached from north, south, east and west, it can serve much of the country far more easily than Heathrow and with HS2 coming we actually have the chance to plot a major transport hub in the centre of the country.

There is space near the existing airport site for a major new 4 runway national airport.  The airport could be designed for access primarily by public transport.  It could be designed as a major airfreight hub with a railhead for moving the freight straight onto rail and then out to the rest of the country.  Both Birmingham and Coventry are within 10 miles but you have Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Northampton, Stoke, Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, Worcester, Oxford all within close distance.  With HS2 Birmingham Airport would be a 30 minute train ride from Heathrow – it is not beyond our wit to create true air-rail ticketing making a ride on HS2 between airports on an integrated ticket a standard part of planning our journeys.

My premises for this proposition are that aviation demand will continue to grow and that our focus (based on proportion of emissions) is to get air travellers not driving across the country but taking shorter journeys to get to their planes and those journeys being easily made by public transport.  Birmingham Airport is the best located airport for mass public transport access – it would be daft not to take advantage of that.  It also has the space and ability to be completely rebuilt as a brand new purpose-designed national airport with a fully integrated transport interchange within it – high speed rail, access to the West Coast main line, bus, tram, rapid transit, safe cycling routes in &c

So Coalition Government. A 3rd runway at Heathrow is silly, so much pain for so little gain. The big picture, the long term vision – we need space for sustainable growth and real passenger benefits as well as benefits for the country as a whole.  Let Heathrow make itself more efficient with what it has and focus on turning Birmingham Airport into the national hub airport that can provide real long term benefits for the country’s wealth.

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