Opinion: We need to lift the mental shutters to put aviation on right track

Mike Carrivick, chief executive, BAR UK

If there is one thing politicians, business leaders and transport providers agree upon, it is that transport investment will drive economic growth. Why then does air transport seemingly get treated differently?

Bus and coach companies provide mass transport and play a vital role in reducing car traffic. In general, they are privately owned and operated and benefit from free infrastructure in the form of roads as well as some attractive public subsidies.

In 2010-11, these subsidies amounted to £2.26 billion, which is great news if you are a shareholder.

Rail transport is such a vital part of the nation’s transport infrastructure that the privately owned train operating companies are granted significant public subsidies. The £4.6-billion payout in 2009-10 went a long way to paying for the infrastructure provided by Network Rail. Again, that is great if you are a shareholder.

Air transport also plays a vital role in meeting the UK’s transport needs but it is treated altogether differently.

All aviation costs incurred in the UK have to be self-funded by the airlines, the airports and their customers. These costs include airports, air traffic control and services provided by the Civil Aviation Authority. No subsidies are granted for air travel.

So why, especially as the industry would fund the additional hub airport capacity so desperately needed, is aviation policy caught in a vacuum of the government’s making?

Apart from the environmental discussions that arise in any airport context, the concept and necessity of a hub airport seems to puzzle the government.

Yet the concept of creating a transport hub where travellers (and freight) can make efficient and frequent connections to a large number of destinations is a well-tried and proven one.

In fact, it’s a primary reason why Crossrail is being built through London, so travellers don’t come to an abrupt end at a London terminus but can connect direct to a large number of other rail and underground lines. The same concept applies at hundreds of stations throughout the UK where train and bus travellers connect from one mode to the other.

When it comes to air travel, the mental shutters seem to come down and integration opportunities are being lost.

Meanwhile, the UK’s competitors abroad are putting the concept of integrated hubs to good use and expanding their own economies at the expense of the UK.

It is perverse that the government proposes to spend more than £30 billion of public funds on the HS2 (high-speed) rail project while turning down the aviation industry’s intention to self-fund the additional capacity urgently needed at the UK’s hub airport, Heathrow.

The government has at least finally acknowledged there is a problem. However, the only action promised so far is a series of further consultations, without firm dates of delivery. That is a public sign of indecision and a signal for investors to look elsewhere.

The Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK) calls upon the government to develop its aviation policy in an enlightened way, consider all options and do so as quickly as possible within a stated timeframe.

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