THE BLOG

Fight or Flight Time: London's Airport Infrastructure

01/05/2015 16:12 BST | Updated 01/05/2016 10:12 BST

As we sit and wait for the outcome of the Davies Commission report on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow or somewhere else, I'm constantly asked about which solution I'll support - like it's a choice between football teams.

For the record, I'm pretty certain that the report will recommend a third runway at Heathrow. Unfortunately, like Boris, I will be disagreeing with Sir Howard Davies. More shockingly, I'm also with Boris that the solution probably lies somewhere in the east of London - maybe even on his island... let me explain. Sir Howard will take a national view and use sound reasons for making this recommendation. But this is the wrong outcome for Londoners.

Hubs Are Not The Answer

If we think about 'Hubs' - Amsterdam (not much larger than just two of London's boroughs combined), hasn't benefited from a new economic dynamic as a result of its European hub status; its 800,000 residents scarcely benefit from the extra cup of tea that people buy as they wait for their connecting flights - all they get is noise and fumes.

Hub activity in London accounts for only 36% of all air travel which Heathrow could handle several times over without an additional runway if we distributed other routes amongst our world-class five alternatives. The hub argument simply doesn't stand up.

My real reason for backing an alternative plan is however, that if a Mayor is to be given the opportunity to influence this decision, it is nothing to do with the merits or otherwise of hub travel, or even Heathrow's suitability as an airport (incidentally, it's totally unsuitable for, say, people travelling from anywhere other than London by train - even Gatwick is better as it's on a mainline). It's to do with how we can maximise economic activity, regenerate London and build hundreds of thousands of new houses by putting London, not just the airport, at the heart of the conversation.

London Is A Global Hub, Too Big and Far Too Wide For One Airport

It goes without saying that aviation is key to London's continued success as a global city. It's a mega-city, a global financial hub - Greater London is Europe's largest and the World's 3rd largest economy and it's a capital of global HQ's for companies. Two in five of the largest global companies with a main or European headquarters have that HQ in London, 60% of non-European companies choose London to locate their office hub.

London is, it can be said, the global gateway to the 500 million consumers of Europe. Taking just the financial sector - it spends over £1bn on air transport each year - that's a lot of flights. If we add on top of this London's place as a top tourist destination (which I discussed in February), the importance of a logical and robust air infrastructure for London is stark.

Quite simply, efficient air travel provides us with access to markets throughout the world. But we're in danger of being left behind not just in the airports stakes - but as a city - and the money we're about to spend on redeveloping an airport, could really help shape our future prosperity if it's used reinvent parts of London.

No Airport Is An Island (Nor Should It Be)

I still think that exploring a network of airports, strategically placed, such as Boris' estuary airport is a good idea, as there are a number of straightforward advantages to building in that area of London. Its relative lack of density means that not only are flights safer and less likely to cause noise problems, but it would allow for flights around the clock. What's more, it will revitalise the area and breathe life into a place that needs it - just look at what the Olympics did for London, the East End in particular.

In short, the infrastructure that would be needed to support a new airport would also regenerate this part of London, and the growth in the local economy would pay for the project alone adding 250,000 new homes and countless businesses. Because there's no nimbyism in that area, we can also think about very exciting building projects - and totally rethink how we house people.

Then factor in the 90,000 homes we'd build on the old Heathrow site - along with their supporting businesses. That's another borough of Kensington and Chelsea being born in West London's most desirable pockets - sandwiched neatly between richmond and Windsor - already plugged in to town with express railways and a motorway networks. The move would house upwards of 700,000 people, create masses of jobs and set London up as the city it needs to be in 15 years.

An Airport Network and Current Capacity

Boris and now I may not get our way on this. So what then? The best result is to expand Stansted, Gatwick and Luton - probably in that order. Crossrail 2 will effectively join up with Stansted, bringing a much faster link and turning this airport into an incredible alternative. Currently, Stansted at just 47% capacity, and for an understandable reason: no businessperson wants to go from there if they can afford not to, as you can't guarantee you'll get there on time on the so-called Stansted Express, which is so unreliable that even the name 'Stansted Snail' wouldn't do it justice. I've personally been delayed on it almost as many times as I've used it; on one occasion, I was stuck on it for five hours and had to get on to an adjacent train in darkness, and was taken backwards instead of forwards.

There is massive potential in boosting the infrastructure of London's existing airports. For all the talk of Heathrow Expansion, it is worth noting that other global cities avoid the trap of concentrating too much on one hub airport. In New York, for example, activity at Newark, JFK and LaGuardia airports is spread relatively consistently. This is a far cry from London's disjointed approach, and it could be changed with infrastructure improvements. Stansted, for instance, could attract 1.5m more passengers each year if the journey time from Liverpool Street was reduced by just 15 minutes. And Stansted is not the only airport that we are failing to make good use of- Luton is operating at just a 51% capacity.

It's Fight of Flight Time For London

Many people feel that the UK is losing its position on the world stage, which might sound to some as if we're somehow shrinking. But the facts are that other economies, such as China where seven airports are built every year, are growing in a way that's almost unimaginable to us. We have to decide what role London will take, and how relevant it will be over the next 50 years.

Are we going to remain a world player, or shrivel to a quaint tourist attraction as a monument to a bygone era?