220m pounds upgrade for Luton airport

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The Independent Online
A PLAN to upgrade Luton airport into one of the South-east's key hubs, with a dedicated rail link and the capacity to handle up to 20 million passengers a year, is to be announced at the Conservative Party conference this week.

The pounds 220m scheme, which has the backing of British Rail and local authorities, is designed to transform Luton's image from a down-market airport into a hub for both charter operators and European scheduled services.

The redevelopment of the airport, which is owned by Luton borough council, would be a joint venture between the public and private sectors and is likely to result in its partial privatisation.

Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, has been retained to seek private funding and Ove Arup, the consulting engineers, and the construction group Taylor Woodrow have prepared a feasibility report. This proposes the construction of a new rail interchange on the St Pancras-Bedford Thameslink line connecting into a mass transit train system. There would also be new check-in, customs and baggage facilities.

At present, passengers travelling to the airport by rail have to get off at Luton BR station and take a bus to the terminal. Under the redevelopment plans, road and rail passengers would arrive at the rail interchange, where they would check in, go through customs and baggage checks and then take a 2km 'people mover' to the departure lounge and duty free area.

If the scheme gets the go- ahead, a development company will be set up this autumn, and a planning application will be submitted in a year's time.

The redeveloped airport would open in the autumn of 1997 and passenger levels could rise from 2.5 million a year to between 9 million and 11 million by 2005.

Ultimately, the intention is to raise capacity to 20 million passengers with a further investment of up to pounds 200m in the early part of next century.

The redevelopment of Luton would boost the local economy which has been hit by heavy redundancies in aerospace, electronics and truck manufacture in the past two years.

One estimate is that employment at the airport would at least double from its present level of 5,000.

Two decades ago Luton handled 10 per cent of all air passengers in the South-east, but today it accounts for only 2 per cent. Ryanair, the Irish airline, switched operations from Luton to Stansted a year ago leaving the charter operators, Britannia and Monarch, as its two main airlines.

But with an estimated 15 million people living within an hour's drive of Luton and the airport placed conveniently between the A1 and M1, there are hopes that it could become an attractive base for more scheduled airlines.

Luton, however, will face stiff competition for passengers from BAA, the owner of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

When Heathrow's fifth terminal opens in 2001 it will raise capacity by 10 million passengers while Stansted's capacity is scheduled to reach 16 million by the same time.

BAA forecasts that passenger demand will not begin to outstrip capacity in the South-east until 2006. Between then and 2016, the gap between the two will rise to 27 million even with the expansion of Terminal 5 to accommodate a further 20 million passengers.

Ove Arup and Taylor Woodrow were appointed in April to draw up a feasibility study by the airport and BR's Thameslink division.

A working group has also been set up, including representatives of the borough and county councils, the local chamber of commerce and Vauxhall Motors, which owns most of the land on which the new rail interchange would be built.