Flybe has called on the Government to reserve space at London airports for use by regional services so that the whole of the UK can be benefit from future investment in aviation hubs in the South East.
The Airports Commission, headed by former Financial Services Authority chief Sir Howard Davies, yesterday chose a new, third, runway at Heathrow as one of its expansion options along with an extra, second, runway at Gatwick as the UK’s investment priorities.
In addition, Sir Howard’s team kept the door open for a Thames Estuary airport scheme, favoured by London mayor Boris Johnson, with the commission saying it will look further at the Isle of Grain airport option in the first half of next year.
The prospect of investment at the UK’s South East aviation hubs comes after a difficult time for the Westcountry’s airports after the recession saw airline costs increase and passenger numbers decrease.
In 2011, Plymouth City Airport closed and, earlier this year, Cornwall faced the prospect of losing its links to Gatwick when Flybe sold its slots to easyJet, which said the route was not commercially viable. Talks are now under way to establish a government subsidy to maintain the route.
Exeter has fared best out of the Westcountry’s airports with new owners and an 11% increase in passenger numbers this year. But its main customer, Flybe, has struggled and continues to scale back both its workforce and route network in a bid to lower costs.
Saad Hammad, chief executive of Flybe, called on the Government to do more to connect regional air services to hub airports.
He said: “Aviation policy should serve the needs of the whole economy and all regions. Extra investment in capacity around London should be for the whole country, not just for London. The Government should mandate reserved slots in London airports to serve the regions at an affordable cost so that the regions too can benefit from hub connections to London and onwards to the rest of the world.
“In our submission to the commission, we pointed out that only six UK cities (Aberdeen, Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle) currently have access to Heathrow, compared to 20 in 1990. We are disappointed that Sir Howard seems not to have addressed the crucial issue of regional connectivity to any new national hub near the capital.”
He added: “Aviation policy must serve all of the UK, not just London. Regions have poor access to London airports, being crowded out by more profitable international flights. We risk having a London hub only for the South East of England and transiting international passengers, with people outside London increasingly having to use Dublin, Paris and Amsterdam as their hub to access the rest of the world.”
The commission has not shortlisted proposals for expansion at Stansted airport, or at Birmingham and it has not considered smaller airports such as Exeter and Newquay.
The report devotes a single paragraph to smaller regional airports, which says: “...it is important that these airports can serve their local markets effectively, so central government should work with local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to ensure that proper consideration is given to the needs of airport users when prioritising local transport investment.”
Tim Jones, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, said he would like to see upgrades to regional aviation links – but he argued that the South West would benefit from any investment in Gatwick and Heathrow. He said: “Investment in additional capacity at a hub is something we’re going to bitterly regret if we don’t make it within the next three to five years.”