Minister signals regional airport expansion plan

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A MAJOR expansion of Britain's regional airports to take the pressure off the South-east's heavily congested gateways was signalled yesterday by the Government.

Chris Mullin, the Aviation minister, said that a new air transport White Paper was being prepared, setting aviation policy for the next 30 years.

A key element of the White Paper, which will be preceded next year by a wide-ranging consultation paper, will be an increased role for Britain's regional airports, such as Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds and East Midlands.

Addressing a London conference, Mr Mullin said that the three London airports - Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted - accounted for 64 per cent of UK passenger traffic. But while demand for runway slots at Heathrow significantly exceeded supply, most regional airports were not operating anywhere near full capacity.

"We want to improve the quality of air services available at regional airports, to relieve the pressure on the South-east, maximise the benefits to regional and local economies and reduce the need for people from other parts of the UK to make long surface journeys, particularly by road, within the UK," he said.

Virgin Atlantic, which is largely based at Heathrow, is, for instance, offering its Upper Class passengers a limousine service to the airport from up to 150 miles away.

Mr Mullin stressed, however, that the new aviation policy would also take into account the environmental impact of regional airport expansion, such as air pollution, noise disturbance and land take.

An independent report produced for the conference by Oxford Economic Forecasting shows that aviation is expected to grow at twice the rate of the economy over the next 15 years. The industry already employs 550,000 directly and indirectly and contributes pounds 10.2bn to national output.

The report says that a world-class aviation industry is vital if the UK economy is to take advantage of the growth in world trade. It also warns that there would be "significant economic implications" if policy makers restricted growth.

Mr Mullin said that while the Government wanted the aviation industry to thrive, it had also to be an example of "sustainable development", taking into account the environment, use of natural resources and social inclusion.