London City Airport has joined larger peers Heathrow and Gatwick in waiting for an official decision on whether they can proceed with expansion plans. And a throng of polls and surveys is being delivered, to help inform those charged with making the choices.
The compact Docklands airport recorded its busiest ever day at the end of March, used by 17,846 passengers on 24 March. The bumper throughput came just ahead of the completion of a public inquiry into the airport’s expansion plans, which went to appeal after mayor Boris Johnson refused permission.
Johnson’s decision claimed the expansion would deliver an “unacceptable increase in noise for east Londoners” and said the plans “would not be for the greater benefit of the city”. A spokesman for Johnson added: “The mayor has a responsibility to ensure that London’s strategic planning interests are taken into account and he directed Newham council to refuse London City Airport’s planning application due to concerns about the noise impact of their plans.” But his move was dismissed by Newham council leader Sir Robin Wales, who called the decision “blatant electioneering” ahead of the 2015 general election.
In support of their expansion plans, London City Airport’s owners have just commissioned a study that found 73% of respondents in favour of the airport’s expansion plans. Of those surveyed, 82% saw increased aviation capacity in the south east as necessary for business growth in London. The study also suggested that trips from the airport can be linked to £11 billion of trade exports.
Last year, the airport handled a record 4.3 million passengers, and its development proposal would increase this capacity to 6.5 million. The airport is painting itself as a short term capacity fix, while the Heathrow/Gatwick debate and decision-making process rumbles on.
“London City Airport is poised to provide an interim solution to much needed aviation capacity in the south east,” said airport chief executive Declan Collier. “Today’s report and survey prove that our expansion would provide clear benefits for the UK economy and that there is a huge appetite among key business leaders, who rely on air connectivity for their companies to thrive.”
“If we get the green light, we can start delivering extra capacity within 18 months, meeting this demand and increasing our contribution to both the local and national economies, from our location just a few miles from London’s key financial and business districts.”
The airport owners want to add seven new aircraft stands, a parallel taxiway alongside the existing single runway, and to extend the terminal to the east and west. The plans won approval from local authority Newham, in February 2015. Lester Hudson, chariman of the council’s strategic development committee, commented at the time: “This development will provide a significant boost in education, training and access to jobs for residents of Newham. As the largest private sector employer in the borough London City Airport’s expansion will provide an excellent opportunity for local residents to take a share of the extra 1,500 new jobs arising from this development.” The committee secured a number of tough conditions, controlling noise and actually reducing the total number of permitted flights.
Meanwhile, a much-delayed decision on whether the government will favour London region airport capacity at either Heathrow or Gatwick is promised this coming summer. The promise does, however, follow previous expectations that a decision would be announced, most recently after the Airports Commission reported last summer.
That review, itself widely seen as a way for the government to defer a tough decision, came down in favour of expanding Heathrow.
But with no decision yet, Gatwick is still in the fight, and has delivered the latest contribution to the airport expansion debate, in the form of a poll. It shows most councillors in London favour Gatwick’s growth over Heathrow. A survey of 239 councillors across the capital found 62% in favour of Gatwick expanding, against 38% in favour of growth at Heathrow.
Unsurprisingly, councillors said the major issues for residents, of noise and air pollution, were uppermost in their minds when making their considerations. And this came ahead of the greater economic benefit for the UK, with 46% thinking Heathrow growth would be best for the country, against 28% agreeing Gatwick would deliver this best.
Gatwick airport noted it was ahead in six of seven key debating points, including a lower negative impact on local residents; cheaper build costs and faster delivery; an improvement in competition between airports; local regeneration benefits and certainty of delivery.
“After decades of delay, Londoners recognise that Gatwick expansion can actually happen and that it is time to finally close the book on Heathrow’s plans,” said an understandably partisan Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate.
“The UK cannot afford years of more delay so let’s get on and build a new runway for Britain at the only airport that can deliver it. Air quality is a crucial issue for London so it is no surprise to see continued strong support for Gatwick expansion and real concern around Heathrow’s impact.”
LPA Perspective: While the officials dither, London continues to suffer from poor international flight connectivity. Plenty of business bodies have already delivered their views, from exasperation to disbelief, at the delay in making a tough decision. While deciding will not be any easier by delaying, plenty are pointing to the upcoming London mayoral elections as a political reason not to announce a decision.
Conservative mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith is steadfastly opposed to Heathrow’s expansion – meaning his success could boost Gatwick’s position; while Labour-backed contender Sadiq Khan has also backed Gatwick for air capacity growth.
London City Airport submitted its expansion plans in 2013, and thanks to a tough but fair local planning authority, was given approval in early 2015. Having finessed the relationship between the airport and the locals since it first opened in 1987, the borough was best placed to negotiate a satisfactory deal. The airport could have had its extra capacity in place by the end of this year, had the mayor not intervened.
Meanwhile, will we actually get a decision on Heathrow or Gatwick this year? No one should be holding their breath, but at least one political decision – who becomes London mayor – will soon be settled. The danger is that another political problem will arise, and the football that is the decision will be kicked into the long grass once more.
Other UK airports are, meanwhile, enjoying the dithering in the south. Birmingham has increased passenger numbers 13.6% in the last year, with 13 consecutive months of growth. The airport completed an extension of its runway in 2014, allowing it to handle fully loaded A380 aircraft. Coming months will see the addition of A380 flights by Emirates, as well as new destinations served by Qatar Airlines, while a new scheduled service to New York was recently added.
Further north, Manchester has won over Chinese airline Hainan Airlines, which will start four flights a week direct to Beijing, starting in June.