Justine Greening promises action on air capacity

  • 30 April 2012
  • From the section England
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Justine Greening
Image caption Justine Greening acknowledges the problem with air capacity in the South East

The Transport Secretary Justine Greening was told in no uncertain terms that delays at immigration were getting worse and upsetting passengers at an easyJet reception at Westminster this week.

She was also lobbied over the issue of Air Passenger Duty, which the industry would like to see scrapped.

In turn, she was cheered by MPs, ministers, Lords and the bosses of many of Britain's airports when she told the gathering:

"We know there is a problem with air capacity in the South East and we intend to address it quickly."

The issue of capacity was the main talking point at the reception and we learned that there have been a few interesting developments in the last few months.

A fair wind

The first is that Luton Airport was recently invited to Downing Street to brief the Prime Minister's policy unit on the issue of expansion.

The airport wants to increase capacity and is asking for permission to handle up to 18 million passengers a year (almost double what it does at the moment).

We understand that they had a favourable reception and were told that "the wind was blowing in the right direction".

Image caption Heathrow is at high capacity but is there really a need for a new hub airport?

The government is keen to see existing capacity used and it looks as if Luton will be allowed to grow.

The second thing we learnt was that many in the industry are getting angry about the claim, often made by lobbyists, that Britain's airports are full.

"We're not," said one airport executive.

"Gatwick has loads of space at the moment, so too do Luton and Stansted and they've just opened a new terminal at Southend."

"Saying 'Britain is full' all the time is putting off new airlines from coming here."

Heathrow is full but is there really a need for a new hub airport?

Aviation paper

easyJet's chief executive Carolyn McCall told the gathering that travelling habits are changing.

Non-hub or point to point air travel now accounts for 80% of passenger traffic in the UK.

"Passengers increasingly don't mind where they fly from, providing it's easy to get to the airport," she said.

Image caption There is growing speculation that the government will not actually state a new airport location

The Transport Secretary will produce a new aviation paper later this year.

Those we spoke to expect the paper to recommend a greater use of existing airports and give the green light to a new runway.

But where?

There is growing speculation that the government will not actually state a location (unlike Alistair Darling when he published the last Aviation White Paper and suggested a second runway at Stansted).

Perhaps it will instead be left to the industry to decide if it wants one and where it wants it to be built.

Another airport executive speculated: "It would politically be much easier to let the industry be seen to make the decision and take the flak."

Second runway

And where is the favoured location for any second runway?

Most people we spoke to felt that Boris Island is too impractical, Gatwick too messy and Birmingham too far away.

Stansted is still seen as the easiest place to build.

Stansted says it has no plans for a second runway as the issue is not on the agenda at the moment.

It is also facing the prospect of being sold, which is concentrating most minds.

The airport might not be over the moon if it were to be chosen: "We spent £2 billion on the plans for the last runway, which were then scrapped by the coalition," said one official.

"It would be a bit rich if the same government were to come to us and say 'go and build a new runway'."