Skip to main content

Airports: Capacity

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the average percentage of total capacity used at London’s commercial airports over the past six months.

My Lords, between May and October 2012 there were 525,000 commercial air transport movements at the five largest commercial London airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City. These air transport movements used around 86% of the available runway capacity.

My Lords, we are not. We have set up the South East Airports Task Force to look at short-term measures to gain some capacity at Heathrow. In the rather longer term, we have the aviation policy framework, which we are committed to publishing in March 2013. Finally, we have set up the Airports Commission, headed up by Sir Howard Davies.

Is it not likely that non-British airports will heartily welcome the Government’s unpardonable delay in selecting an international hub airport, whether at Heathrow or elsewhere? What does the Minister say about that?

My Lords, this problem was not unforeseeable. It has been coming for many years, including when noble Lords opposite were in government. We need to get a consensus and find a lasting solution that will survive a change in Governments.

I hope that the noble Earl will ponder the following: a great deal of the heat in the debate about air capacity is caused by the bidding war that has broken out between various airports and airlines. Will the noble Earl ensure that the Davies commission will, to the best of its ability, be governed by the fact that we should create extra capacity only when a real need is demonstrated?

My Lords, I am confident that the Airports Commission, headed up by Sir Howard, will consider all relevant matters.

The Minister will know my opinion on this but I put it to him very strongly that just about everyone in business has been saying that delaying this infrastructure project is crucially bad for the British economy. It is the delay that is causing the problem. If the Government picked up the previous Government’s policy and continued with it we would not be in this situation now. That would not cost a single penny of public money. Please, please move on this for the sake of the British economy, investment and jobs.

My Lords, it is important for businesses to put their own submissions in to the Airports Commission, as I think the noble Lord has already done himself.

My Lords, institutions can scarcely run at 100% capacity, any more than you can have 100% full employment. There has to be some slack in the system. How long does my noble friend think that the 14% capacity that he says is now available will last? What steps are being taken to meet the moment when it is full?

My Lords, DfT aviation demand forecasts suggest that with no new runway Gatwick Airport could become full from around 2018 and Stansted from around 2030. That is why we have set up the Airports Commission to advise us on viable options for solving this problem.

My Lords, to come back to the original Question, there is a 14% underuse capacity in the five major London and south-east airports. What plans do the Government have to utilise that capacity, given the failing to direct daily flights to some of the major economies around the world and new developing economies? What can be done immediately and what will the Government do?

My Lords, it is important to understand that we are very well connected by Heathrow Airport. It is connected to the rest of the world better than most other places in Europe.

My Lords, my noble friend’s Question referred specifically to commercial airports, but not far from Heathrow lies Northolt—principally a Royal Air Force airport but used for some other domestic and international semi-commercial flights. What problems and constraints exist in the further use or development of Northolt to add value to what otherwise would be part of the same hub of London airports?

My Lords, I understand that there are some difficulties with the runway orientation of Northolt airfield. I am sure that that is a factor that the Airports Commission will take into consideration.

My Lords, in his opening response the noble Earl referred to the fact that a consensus was necessary to make progress over the considerable period of time needed to expand airport capacity. Although he quoted 86% for the south-east airports, we know that Heathrow is at over 99% utilisation and has no scope at all for development. The Opposition have offered to the Government for more than a year now the opportunity to establish a consensus by joint talks. Could the noble Earl at least persuade his ministerial colleagues that these should take place, and that they would be aided by a somewhat earlier timetable for the commission’s report? Why is it having to report after the general election when the urgency of the situation is apparent to everyone?

The noble Lord makes a strong point. The Airports Commission will report with its initial findings by the end of the year. I would be delighted to talk to the noble Lord privately when we get that initial report. But it takes time to do the job properly.

My Lords, I wonder if the Minister might remind the House that capacity at Heathrow is for 90 million passengers per year. Currently it has only 70 million passengers a year, because airlines are using small aircraft in order to keep their slots alive and are developing most of their flights within the UK and near continent, not for the long distance routes. Will he explain to the House that capacity is far more complex and that there is a great deal of capacity with the potential for much better utilisation already in London?

I agree with my noble friend that if you use bigger aircraft you can get more passengers through Heathrow for the same number of flights.

My Lords, what proportion of the capacity at Heathrow do the Government estimate will be released if their plans to build High Speed 2—initially to Birmingham and then to Manchester and Leeds—are fulfilled? Is it not the case that when high-speed railways are built on the continent, domestic aviation diminishes and as a result there is spare capacity at airports?

The noble Lord makes an important point, but it will not solve our underlying problem that we will still eventually run out of capacity at the London airports.