The UK's air strategy is stuck in a holding pattern

The man who pays his way

I imagine staff for the train operator Southern have had a tough old year. According to the latest Network Rail figures, the franchise that covers Gatwick, Brighton and the rest of the Sussex coast from London Victoria is the worst-performing over the past year, with one in six trains at least five minutes late.

Then again, Ryanair's customer-service team has to deal with more than its share of unhappy passengers. Nor would I fancy being on the front desk of a luxury hotel explaining the house Wi-Fi policy to an irate guest. Internet access is freely available at 30,000ft aboard Norwegian flights, aboard postbuses winding through Swiss mountains and (by March) across the whole of Brighton – but not at some top hotels where guests pay hundreds of pounds a night.

Yet the most thankless task in travel right now belongs to Sir Howard Davies. His mission: "to maintain the UK's position as Europe's most important aviation hub." Since he was appointed two years ago, the chair of the Airports Commission has concluded that the only solution is to build, by 2030, an extra runway in South-east England. He and his colleagues have shortlisted three options: a second runway at Gatwick and two schemes for a third at Heathrow.

After a few months of public consultation, the Davies Commission will go into a huddle and come up with its favoured scheme. A complex and delicate task, but why so thankless? Because Sir Howard doesn't know to whom he will be submitting his report, nor whether the recipient will take the blindest bit of notice.

When the Airports Commission was set up, the government made clear that no answer was expected until after the May 2015 general election – whereupon the incoming Transport Secretary, will receive the hottest of political hot potatoes.

From my conversations with a succession of incumbents of the thankless post of Transport Secretary over the past 20 years, it appears that the part of the job description dealing with the aviation capacity crunch in the London area says: "You must assert that 'Doing nothing is not an option', but then do precisely nothing."

This week, the aviation minister, Robert Goodwill, declined to say if a future Conservative government would accept the Davies Commission recommendation. At the Airport Operators' Association (AOA) annual conference in London, all he would tell me was: "This is not a decision that should be made on the basis of postbags, focus groups or opinion polls, it needs to be decided on the needs of the UK economy." I was too polite to say, "hang on, isn't that the whole point of Sir Howard's three-year inquiry?"

His Labour shadow, Gordon Marsden, also declined to commit to the commission.

You can sympathise with the main parties given present uncertainties; either might end up sharing power with the Lib Dems and, agree or not, at least we know where Nick Clegg's party stands – "opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, Stansted [or] Gatwick". Which could be a deal breaker in any coalition negotiations.

Whither and dither

When the economy collides with environment issues on the slippery runway of political expedience, must things inevitably end messily? The man who owns the most slots at Heathrow (and has the second-biggest collection at Gatwick) thinks so. Willie Walsh is chief executive of British Airways' parent, IAG. He believes the next government will shrink from the challenge: "The work that Sir Howard Davies has done is world-class. But I remain to be convinced that anything will actually happen. Politicians to my mind won't be brave enough to grasp the nettle."

Support for expansion comes from an unlikely quarter: Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports. Given that travellers from Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow can bypass London by flying to his hub and onwards to more than 250 destinations, you might imagine he is content with continued procrastination. But no: "This country needs the aviation engine of new airport capacity. The wrong thing is to hand it to Dubai on a plate, by failing to provide enough capacity in the London system ."

Sir Howard was on robust form this week, saying: "I hope to provide an evidence base that will make it very difficult for a future government to duck the issue." And if his advice on airport expansion is ignored? "You could start to see some quite unpleasant things happening economically."

The Airports Commission now begins a task that looks beyond thankless. Sir Howard and his team must ask people living around Heathrow and Gatwick how they would feel about the bulldozers moving in for a decade to create a runway that will, in turn, bring tens of millions more passengers to their back yards. Sounds a laugh a minute. Merely lip-service? No, he insists; he wants to learn: "How could you best make an expanded airport a good neighbour? There's a lot to be debated about that. I think we'll learn a lot."

Massaging: the figures

The boss of the Airports Commission was interviewed by Today presenter John Humphrys at the AOA conference. One delegate randomly recommended the foot massages at Bangkok airport as a good way to ease travel stress. Sir Howard quipped back: "When I've had massages, I've always told my wife they were foot massages, too."

Soon afterwards, Mr Humphrys concluded the discussion on the future of airports by saying: "I know you've got a very busy day, Sir Howard. Your massage appointment with Fifi is in 25 minutes."