Guest column: Paul Kehoe, Birmingham airport

The UK’s devolution debate should be reflected in air and infrastructure policies, argues Birmingham airport’s CEO Paul Kehoe

There are two big national conversations happening at the moment, which are highly relevant to the future of UK aviation. Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission is looking into how to expand UK airport capacity, and has come down to a shortlist of Heathrow and Gatwick; and simultaneously, we find ourselves increasingly talking about the need for greater devolution of powers to our cities and regions.

Since the last general election, there has been a lot of talk in Westminster of rebalancing the economy and releasing new UK-wide growth potential, but it is only in recent months that we have heard loud calls for powers to be spread more evenly across the country, too.

These debates do not always sit comfortably with each other, with the former conversation too often focused on grand ideas like ‘hubs’, ‘UK Plc’ and ‘south-east capacity’ – phrases that don’t chime with many people’s everyday lives. In contrast, this second conversation on devolution is growing in volume precisely because it increasingly makes sense to communities right across the UK.

As a country we need to rebalance our economy and unlock potential across all our great cities and, to achieve this, we are going to need greater local control. This is not to say that all decisions should happen locally. There is a clear need for long-term and national infrastructure planning, but those plans need to take bigger national trends into consideration.

Passengers and businesses in the Midlands are telling us that they see themselves as part of the region and want to fly direct from Birmingham airport. New hub-busting aircraft technologies are making this possible and, over the last year, we experienced a 13 per cent boost in long-haul travel.

Our region now exports close to £30 billion of goods and services a year, and we have a clear understanding of the role aviation and integrated transport plays in boosting regional growth. To continue this trend, we are working with our partners across the region to set out the road and rail improvements required to get the Midlands truly moving. And we have recently extended our runway for longer-haul flights as part of a £200 million investment programme.

While we can do a huge amount as a region to ensure our economy has the transport choices we need to grow, national government also has a major role to play. As a result of national support for High Speed 2, for example, it will be easier for passengers to make a choice between airports in London, Manchester and Birmingham.

We will be perfectly placed to relieve the over-crowded south-east’s congestion. But, for the long-term, the country does need new runway capacity – and despite the shortlisted options being both in the south-east, where that runway goes will have national consequences.

In the two years since the Airports Commission began looking at the future of airport capacity, the shape of global aviation has changed. Passengers are demanding new routes and want to fly direct, not through hubs. UK aviation investment must follow this trend. Increasing airport capacity at Gatwick will support this demand for greater connectivity, not only at Gatwick, but also for the benefit of all passengers using Heathrow, Birmingham and beyond.

While we are deeply concerned that Heathrow expansion will distort the market, threatening growth in the Midlands, Gatwick expansion would support the rebalancing of the economy, reducing congestion at Heathrow and improving the aviation experience for all. A second runway at Gatwick would generate competition in the south-east, leading to lower fares, improved standards and greater opportunities. The idea of a mega-hub is becoming obsolete, with competition and liberalisation being at the heart of the UK’s aviation success.

This is what we are delivering through our own investment programme and this is what a second Gatwick runway can help to support, not only for London, but for the country’s network of great airports.

Prior to becoming CEO of Birmingham airport in 2008, Paul Kehoe worked for a variety of companies in the industry, including Bristol and Luton airports. Paul is also chairman of Marketing Birmingham and a member of the Warwick Business School Strategy board. He is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Royal Society of Arts.

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