Birmingham Airport unveils plan to take 70 million passengers in bold test to Heathrow's air supremacy
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Monday 10 June 2013
Birmingham Airport is making a bid to become as big as London's Heathrow and potentially the busiest aviation hub in the world.
An audacious land-grab to overtake Heathrow – which currently handles 70 million passengers a year, more than any other airport in the world – is being made by a coalition of Midlands councils and business leaders.
The proposal comes in a report criticising the Government's aviation strategy as misguided – and accusing the commission led by Sir Howard Davies that is looking at the future of UK airport capacity of being too focused on London and the South East.
The group behind the plan claims the current debate is flawed and wrongly centred on the battle between more runways and expansion at Heathrow and the construction of a new airport in the Thames Estuary, known as "Boris Island". They instead propose that Birmingham's current capacity could be immediately doubled to 18 million passengers, even without new infrastructure.
The runway extension due to be completed next year will give Birmingham a capacity of 27 million, which is more than a third runway at Heathrow could deliver in a decade.
The longer-term vision for a "UK Central" international hub airport at Birmingham would see it overtake Heathrow as Britain's biggest, able to handle as many as 70 million passengers a year and linked into the proposed HS2 fast rail network.
When HS2 is completed, the capital's main interchange station in West London would be just 31 minutes away from Birmingham.
Paul Kehoe, the chief executive of Birmingham Airport, claims the UK's long-haul traffic cannot continue to be routed through one airport in West London. Mr Kehoe said: "In 20 years' time, British air travel will double. We believe that the best option is to create a network of long-haul national airports, each supporting the comparative economic advantages of that region to boost trade, foreign investment and tourism."
Such a plan could be undermined by the reluctance of major airlines to commit to long-haul routes starting and ending outside the London area.
British Airways said last year: "British Airways does not believe that regional airports can ever be an alternative to provision of effective hub airport capacity serving London and the South East."
Virgin has also implied that it is not convinced by Birmingham as an alternative, saying Heathrow and Gatwick are "full at peak times because passengers want to fly from those airports".
Alongside a larger Birmingham airport, the coalition's project includes plans to expand capacity at Manchester and Edinburgh airports, which would help ease over-crowding at Heathrow and other airports in the South East.
According to Birmingham's analysis, better use of the six largest regional airports could add 116 million passengers to airport capacity by 2050.
But London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, who is opposed to any expansion at Heathrow, believes that if the Government takes the Birmingham project seriously it will work in his favour and boost the chances of "Boris Island" taking off.
Despite Birmingham stating that aviation policy remained over-focused on the South-east, Mr Johnson surprisingly told The Independent that he welcomed Birmingham's "support" for a new hub to the "east" of the capital – namely, the Thames Estuary.
He said: "Birmingham Airport and Birmingham City Council are quite right that Heathrow cannot expand because that would expose too many people living in West London to unacceptable noise levels. They are on the button in recognising that a new hub airport to the east of the capital would complement the services provided by regional airports. We need both a major, internationally competitive hub, and effective regional airports if we are to succeed as a country."
The Airports Commission headed by Sir Howard, the former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, is expected to publish an interim report before the end of the year on how aviation capacity can be improved.
Mark Garnier, the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest and the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the economy of the West Midlands, claimed a global travel hub at Birmingham could bring long-haul travel to within a one-hour journey for 45 million people.
He said: "This could be in place by 2032 when the HS2 network is fully operational. This will make it the most accessible airport in Britain."
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