The debate around aviation capacity in the UK continues but improving access to our existing airports is vital to enhancing the customer experience

Richard McCarthy

Aviation in the UK is faced with a stark challenge. By 2030 it is predicted that the main airports in the South-east will have run out of available capacity. Unless action is taken now the UK is likely to see many airlines opting to leave and use major European airports such as Schiphol and Frankfurt, which have more flexibility and will allow them to continue to grow their operations.
Furthermore an under-reported chapter in the Airport Commission’s interim report correctly points to the urgent need for investment in aspects of existing airport infrastructure to unlock its latent potential. This merits greater attention and a clear action plan for the future.

Neither of these are new issues and there has been much debate regarding where new capacity in the UK should be provided, with the Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, recently presenting the shortlisted options to be considered in more detail over the next 18 months. Two offer enhanced capacity at Heathrow while the third is a new runway at Gatwick. Another option, presented by the mayor of London, for a new airport in the Isle of Grain in Kent, will also be assessed separately.

At first glance the UK airport capacity debate appears horribly convoluted. It all hinges on whether the UK still needs a Heathrow-style “hub” airport. This would allow for passengers who wish either to start or complete their journey, and support those who fly into an airport and transfer to another connecting service. Or, on the other hand, if it needs a Gatwick-style “point-to-point” airport where the demand for a transfer service is not necessarily seen as a critical differentiator - nor indeed a sustainable business model. 

While terminal building improvements have happened or are underway at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, there has been less collective focus on surface access to these airports

I do not intend to argue the point here. But if all this effort is needed to decide on one runway, I do wonder whether it might be best to back both options now and set out an indicative phased timetable for their development. After all, London is genuinely one of the great world cities and needs to offer enhanced international transport options. Equally, reductions in aircraft noise and improved fuel efficiency all point to a more competitive and flexible aviation industry.

Whatever happens, the ticking countdown to 2030 will not stop while the UK debates, and the demand for air travel will continue to rise to 2020 and beyond. Consequently, the immediate investment priority must be to best manage and balance the existing aviation infrastructure in order to both enhance and maximise existing and planned capacity, not just in the context of runway availability but also terminal and connecting infrastructure. 

Widening the focus on to the total picture and experience, encompassing travel to and from an airport, helpfully shifts attention to the needs and desires of customers alongside those of business and the airports and airlines. While terminal building improvements have happened or are under way at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted - which will improve customer experience, efficiency and airport capacity - there has been less collective focus across the transport and aviation sectors on the current state of the surface access to each of these airports. Any capacity enhancement through new or improved terminals and runways must be underpinned by complementary infrastructure across an integrated transport network. 

This is not necessarily the case today - for example Heathrow has no interface with the National Rail network and both Gatwick and Stansted are served with relatively poor road and railway links, suburban rather than international standard stations, ageing rolling stock and poor mobile network coverage.

Put simply, these are issues that will not only have to be addressed with any planned expansion, they also need to be considered now. They are a priority for urgent and rapid intervention and investment and, outside any decision to close Heathrow to make way for the Isle of Grain, they don’t threaten the eventual outcome of the Davies Report and final decisions by ministers.
Furthermore, if Heathrow is to be retained (in either its current size or with increased runway capacity) there is a powerful case to use the future arrival of Crossrail as a catalyst, rather than an alternative, to connecting Heathrow to the national rail network.

Work done to date suggests that just 17 miles of new railway track could connect the airport to the southern, western and HS2 rail networks. I can’t claim to know the history, but the more you think about it the more it seems odd that this has not happened before.

From both a passenger and business perspective, it is essential that runway, terminal and surface access capacity and standards are fully aligned. There is a general consensus that we will shortly need a new runway. At the same time a mixed economy of airport provision seems to work for most commentators. However, we cannot afford to have capacity without good access and efficient, world class facilities and transport infrastructure.

And it is not just about increasing capacity, either - it is about passenger experience as well.

Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government and housing in Capita’s property and infrastructure business