Airport capacity in South-east England will need to increase in the near future according to the head of the Airports Commission.
In a speech outlining the commission’s current thinking on the issue ahead of the publication of an interim report before the end of the year, Sir Howard Davies confirmed that the commission agreed with those who say an increase in runway capacity is required.
Sir Howard, a former CBI chief and a former head of the Financial Services Association, said representations received by the commission arguing against an expansion pointed to demand forecasts that have been systematically over-optimistic or have claimed that airlines will be able to accommodate extra capacity through operational changes and the use of larger aircraft.
Others have pointed out that increasing capacity could severely hinder environmental obligations or suggested that government should try to redistribute air traffic to airports outside the south east, but the commission remain unconvinced by the alternatives.
"Our provisional conclusion is that we will need some net additional runway capacity in the south east of England in the coming decades,” said Sir Howard, in his speech at the Centre for London.
"To rely only on runways currently in operation would be likely to produce a distinctly sub-optimal solution for passengers, connectivity and the economy. It may also not be the best solution in terms of minimising the overall carbon impact of flights and travel to and from airports.
“More point to point flights in smaller aircraft, together with long passenger movements to airports remote from them, bring significant disadvantages. A mechanism for managing the carbon impacts of aviation will be needed if the UK is to achieve its statutory carbon targets just as it will in other countries. But this is the case whether new runway capacity is provided in the south east or not.”
Prior to the last election Labour had approved an extra, third runway at Heathrow airport, but this plan was scrapped by the coalition Government when it took power in May 2010.
Since then, the Heathrow plan has gained more supporters, while London Mayor Boris Johnson favours a new, Thames Estuary airport or expansion at Stansted, while there has also been backing for another runway at Gatwick in West Sussex.
Some have claimed that the expansion is unnecessary due to the advent of new aircraft which could significantly increase passenger loadings and operational efficiency, but Sir Howard said the commission had not been convinced by these claims.
“None of the submissions made to us have suggested that there are transformational gains to be had,” he said.
“It is true that larger aircraft, like the Airbus A380, could deliver some additional capacity in terms of passenger numbers. New aircraft in each market segment are likely to be a little larger than their predecessors, as well as being quieter and more fuel-efficient.
“But airline fleets change slowly and the direction for travel is not all one way, for example, some new Boeing 787s may replace larger 747s. Also, airports themselves do not have the power to require faster fleet turnover, especially if new equipment is not yet available, though they can try to incentivise it, as Heathrow does now.”
A final, full report, making recommendations for the long term, is due after the May 2015 general election and Sir Howard said he hoped the commission would be able to put forward one main option, though he said the single option could include a two-part solution such as, a new runway at Heathrow and a new runway at Gatwick.
The commission will make short-term recommendations involving making more use of existing aviation infrastructure and improving surface access to airports, including rail and road connections.
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association said: "Sir Howard has made an interesting speech today.
"In March, the Government published its Aviation Policy Framework, which supported sustainable aviation growth in the years ahead. Sir Howard's speech gave further backing to aviation growth in the future too. This is something that we strongly support."