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Is the UK's aviation policy up in the air?

Deborah McGurran
Political editor, East of England

image copyrightBAA/PA WIRE
image captionOpinion is divided about the merits of having a new runway at Heathrow Airport

So where does the government's long-awaited aviation policy announcement leave us?

In many respects the answer is "confused".

Ministers don't feel confident enough to start a debate on extra runways at the moment and that has annoyed many in the business community and the aviation industry.

"This is fiddling while Rome burns," says John Strickland, a respected aviation consultant.

"Putting off until the autumn any consultation on extra runway capacity simply puts more pressure on existing infrastructure and leaves the UK further behind its competitors, not only in Europe, but the Middle East."

"The government has spent years working on a strategy for UK aviation, so the fact there'll be yet more delays beggars belief," says Cheryl Smart from the Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce.

"Businesses are tired of indecision and equivocation on aviation."

Spare capacity

But in other respects we do have a clear idea of what the government is expecting of the region's airports in the short term.

It wants to make more use of their existing capacity and it's going to do what it can to help.

This week's policy statement announced a consultation on easing the night flying regime at Stansted Airport.

image copyrightPA
image captionThe government wants to enable foreign carriers to stop off en route to pick up passengers

The government also wants to relax the rules so that foreign carriers en route to other countries will be allowed to stop off at Stansted or Luton to pick up passengers.

There's also talk about identifying ways of improving rail connections with the two airports.

The news has been welcomed by Stansted Airport: "This policy highlights the need to use existing spare runway capacity," says a spokesman.

"Stansted is currently at 50% capacity, with permission to grow to 35m passengers on its single runway.

"By utilising this spare capacity and with enhanced rail links we can help meet demand for point-to-point air travel in the south east."

But what about extra runway capacity?

Apparently there is "a broad consensus on the importance of maintaining the UK's excellent connectivity, over the long term, but no agreement on how to do this".

New runways?

The transport secretary recently told us "something big and bold" is needed to address the long-term problem.

The announcement is anything but; her call for evidence - a kind of consultation - has been delayed.

The Conservative Party went into the last election promising no new runways in the south east. It's now becoming very clear that views are changing.

Last month Mayor of London Boris Johnson called for a second runway at Stansted and this week's report from the Conservative Free Enterprise Group called for at least one new runway at Heathrow.

The MP for South West Norfolk, Elizabeth Truss, has become the first local MP to support building at Stansted.

"As Heathrow is a hub airport there has to be more runways there," she says.

"I think we also need expansion of airport capacity around the country and in my view, if the private sector is prepared to put up the funds then we should also see expansion at Stansted."

She accepts that new runways anywhere will upset people but says there's no alternative.

"We would stagnate economically. We've got to think about the economic consequences."

The campaign group Stop Stansted Expansion says: "Future aviation policy must be built around quality of life and climate change considerations.

"The government should not pander to the vested interests of the aviation industry. We expect the prime minister to honour his promise to be the 'greenest government ever'."

The debate has already started; the industry just wishes the government would formally begin discussions.

"Aviation is a fundamental part of the 21st Century," says John Strickland.

"We really need to grasp the nettle."