FORGET football - at least until the new season starts. Liverpool and Manchester are about to lock horns to see which town will be home of the North- west's airport for the 21st century.
Today, Manchester airport submits its application for a second runway, which it hopes will be completed by 1998. Apart from the expected opposition of local residents and their MP, it has incurred the wrath of Liverpool airport. In an attempt to pre-empt Manchester's application, last February Liverpool set out plans to expand its Speke airport, arguing that it is already the North-west's second runway. Speke's managing director, Rod Hill, says the economic and environmental benefits of developing an existing site are obvious: 'We can expand greatly without the need for a second runway, which will obviously require a lot of land.'
At first sight, there seems to be no contest. Manchester last year had 25 times as many passengers as Liverpool. To use the footballing analogy, it's not so much Liverpool as Accrington Stanley taking on Manchester United.
Manchester had 11.6 million passengers last year - 60 per cent of them on charter flights - and made almost pounds 43m. It expects the number to rise to 30 million by 2005 if it is allowed to build the runway. It boasts a second terminal and a fast city centre rail link, both sparkling new.
Liverpool, by contrast, is more like one of those airports on the Greek islands. It has just three international destinations, compared with Manchester's 60. It lost pounds 750,000 last year when just 467,000 passengers used the airport, more than a third of them travelling to or from Dublin. It doesn't even fly to London any longer.
This obvious imbalance has not prevented a vicious battle developing. Manchester produced an extremely aggressive pamphlet in response to Liverpool's plans, knocking down its rival's scheme almost line-by-line. Instead of dismissing Liverpool with a fly swat, Manchester has called on the heavy artillery. Mr Hill reckons that Manchester is rattled and is clearly worried that it may not win.
Manchester's senior managers are clearly furious at what they see as their upstart neighbour's efforts to constrain their growth. Sir Gilbert Thompson, the chief executive, does not hide his contempt: 'We have no objection to Liverpool increasing their business. But they have no right to attempt to cap our growth.'
Liverpool has decided to put forward a two-phase scheme to expand the airport that will be the subject of a planning application. The scheme would increase capacity to 9 million passengers a year. Controversial plans to reclaim land in the Mersey have been dropped and the hope is that, with Merseyside being classified as a poor area by the European Community, much of the infrastructure could be paid for by EC grants. 'It's just the sort of project the area needs,' says Mr Hill, who suggests that 1,000 direct jobs are created for every 1 million passengers per year.
Mr Hill says Liverpool recognises that it is not going to get large numbers of scheduled airlines, but feels there is a big potential to attract some charter airlines. 'This would free some of Manchester's slots for scheduled flights and mean they wouldn't need a second runway,' he says.
Sir Gilbert retorts that Liverpool is barking up the wrong tree: 'They shouldn't try to stop us growing. They will get more traffic if we get our second runway than if we don't. There will be better crumbs from the master's table, they will even get loaves. They just don't understand that airlines cannot split their operations between the two airports because it doubles your costs.'
Britannia Airways, which has its biggest operation at Manchester, appears to back up his argument. 'We are in favour of regional airport growth but we do not want artificial constraints on growth. Liverpool's catchment area is simply not as good because half of it is in the sea. People prefer Manchester,' a spokesman said.
Manchester's plan is already something of a compromise to cope with environmental objections. The new runway will be very close to the existing one, limiting the increase in capacity to from about 42 to possibly 70 movements per hour. But still the protest groups are rallying around Liverpool's application. Jeff Gazzard, a local protester, said: 'Manchester's proposal will eat up 2,000 acres of land. That's crazy when there is another suitable airport nearby.'
Liverpool also faces questions over the environment - it borders the Mersey estuary, designated an important site of special scientific interest because of its rich bird life.
The likely result is that both planning applications will be called in and put to a joint public inquiry. The problem for the Government is that Liverpool is a joint private-public venture with 76 per cent of the shares owned by British Aerospace and the remainder by the five Merseyside local authorities. By contrast, Manchester has resisted all attempts at privatisation and remains in the ownership of the 10 local authorities. The Government has offered all sorts of inducements to local authorities to dispose of their airports but so far it has resisted forcing through sales. It may face the unpalatable problem of having to support a successful public initiative against a private one.
The explanation of the hostility from Manchester may lie in the past. Sir Gilbert has some reason to dislike Liverpool. As general manager of BEA in the late 1970s, he was told by local council leaders who controlled the airport that his route to London was being handed over to British Midland because BEA had not done enough promotion. Sir Gilbert, who tells the story with relish, clearly subscribes to the adage that revenge is a dish that should be eaten cold.
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