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Expansion grounded
Planning – 19 February 2010

Planners are juggling issues ranging from job creation benefits to nature conservation impacts as they field a wave of expansion projects from airports of all shapes and sizes, says Mark Smulian

A combination of recession and rising concern over carbon emissions might make airports seem the least likely source of planning applications. But look around the country. Aside from controversial new runways at Heathrow and Stansted, expansion is afoot from leading regional airports such as Birmingham and Bristol to obscure ones such as Lydd and Southend-on-Sea.

Airport expansion looks anomalous in the present climate, but it is driven by two convictions. One is that airlines, particularly low-cost carriers, think that they can keep growing. The other is that airports can help regeneration and attract investment, leading to sometimes extravagant claims about their effect on jobs.

For planners, the issues concern not just physical extension of airports but the pressure that their growth puts on road and rail networks, demand for parking and public concern about noise.

"Growth has been stagnant recently but the airlines are confident it will come back and they and airport operators must plan long-term," says York Aviation consultant James Brass, who advises on airport planning applications. "The impact of climate change and public concern about air transport is not clear yet."

EasyJet is among those budget airlines bullish about expansion. "We have said we will expand our fleet to 187 aircraft by this September from 174 in September 2009, so airports are right to expect growth," says a spokesman. The company now draws a quarter of its passengers from the business market, historically dominated by full service carriers such as British Airways. Business passengers need to fly between cities, which are also where the bulk of leisure fliers live.

EasyJet has disappointing news for those who hope that their local airport will expand on the basis of low landing fees, despite a remote location. "Our model is to fly from cities that people want to fly from. "We would not go and use some airfield in the middle of nowhere just because the landing charges are low," its spokesman explains. "You can never say never, but some of these expansion plans would not interest us."

Brass agrees that air travel is unlikely to go down this route. "If airlines see a regional airport with low landing charges they might use it, whereas full service carriers would not. However, this does not mean that every airport proposition will be successful in attracting low-fare airlines. The conditions must be right and that is certainly not always the case."

Job creation benefit claims debated

Airport operators recognise that their plans must be sweetened to overcome concerns about noise, emissions and traffic. They often point to the employment benefits of expansion. But the link between airports and jobs is a rather inexact science. A spokesman for Peel Airports, which owns Liverpool John Lennon, Doncaster Sheffield and Durham Tees Valley Airports, says: "The industry rule of thumb is that one million passengers is equivalent to 1,000 jobs, although the budget carriers go a bit below that."

Last summer a row between Ryanair and Manchester Airport over landing charges led the airline to drop nine of its ten routes, a move it said would cost 600 jobs and a further 400 in which it had planned to invest. This appeared an economic blow when unemployment was on the increase, but the airport stood by its pricing. "We don't believe that charges as low as 3 per passenger are unreasonable. Clearly Ryanair does and that is regrettable," a spokesman said at the time.

Brass observes that little is known about the effects of airports on job creation. "Work is done at the planning stage on the economic impact of airports, but little post-evaluation is done that I know of in respect of individual developments," he says. "Employment density at airports has fallen slightly as productivity has increased, which is as you would expect. But there has not been a dramatic drop, which suggests that additional jobs are created with expansion."

He points out that budget carriers employ fewer ground staff then traditional airlines which run facilities such as executive lounges. However, he agrees that the budget business model has resulted in "significant stimulation" of the market in recent years, above what might have been achieved by traditional airlines. "This has supported significant employment growth," he says.

Easy access vital for location take-off

Amid all the talk of expansion, it may seem anomalous that one of Europe's longest runways now lies almost idle. But the fate of Manston near Ramsgate, now optimistically renamed Kent International Airport, shows that airports need good access as well as good facilities. Kent County Council's integrated transport strategy, issued in November, reports that 3.4 million residents took flights in 2007 but most travelled to one of London's four main airports. Manston is bedevilled by a "peripheral location in relation to the M25 and the rail network", the report says.

Kent is a bitter opponent of London mayor Boris Johnson's proposal for an airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary. It argues that Manston could fulfil this role, handling six million passengers and 500,000 tonnes of freight a year by 2033. The strategy calculates that this would create 7,500 jobs. But better road links and a station served by trains from the Channel Tunnel high-speed line would be needed.

Expansion of Kent's other airport at Lydd looks more uncertain. The airport is seeking permission for a 294m runway extension, a 150m starter extension and a terminal building that could process 500,000 passengers a year. After a series of postponements, Shepway District Council is due to decide on the airport's plans on 3 March. It already has an officers' recommendation to reject the proposal.

Major project officer Terry Ellames's report warns that the proposals would have significant adverse effects on protected habitats including Romney Marsh and the Dungeness nature reserve. He maintains that these drawbacks outweigh any economic benefit: "Given that there is no overriding strategic justification for the proposals, the adverse effects make them unsustainable."

Business trips boost scheme ambitions

Southend-on-Sea Borough Council is poised to allow an extension to the town's airport, which is currently used mainly for aircraft maintenance. The airport's owner, transport firm Stobart, wants to extend the runway to attract larger aircraft. But just before a decision was due, communities secretary John Denham imposed an article 14 direction to give himself more time to consider whether to call a public inquiry into the plans.

Stobart predicts that 400,000 business trips would be made annually, "putting Southend on the business map", and that two million passengers a year could use an airport that currently handles just 48,000. It claims the scheme, which would be served by an adjacent rail station, would generate traffic flows no higher than a medium-sized supermarket at peak shopping times and estimates that 6,700 jobs would be created, 3,700 of them from business attracted by the airport.

Bristol International Airport's proposed expansion of its terminal building and car park has also yet to be decided by North Somerset Council. Just before Christmas, following local protests over traffic generation, the airport management offered a 5.4 million contribution towards a rapid bus transit scheme and other bus services and a reduction in night flights from 4,500 to 4,000 a year. Bristol aims to handle ten million passengers a year by 2019. The operator says expansion would create 3,500 jobs.

But ambitious airlines and airports would do well to heed the lessons of Sheffield City Airport. The facility opened in 1997 but its last scheduled flight took off in 2002 and it closed in 2007 to become a business park. The runway was too short for conventional aircraft and hopes that short take-off business flights would come proved wrong. A Sheffield City Council report concluded that the airport was "nice to have" in economic development terms but not essential. The episode shows how expansion plans can be based on misplaced commercial and civic optimism. Will the rush to expand other small regional airports also end in tears?

Birmingham takes off

Birmingham is one of the few airports to have secured planning permission for a runway extension. The planned 3km-long runway will allow all aircraft to use it fully laden and increase the range of non-stop intercontinental flights it can offer.

The airport company believes that the extension, combined with spare capacity, could solve the overcrowding that affects London's airports - as long as a high-speed rail link is built. The argument that regional airports could take strain off the South East is often made, but the airlines argue that passengers would not travel further to fly.

Birmingham claims that it could take another nine million passengers "tomorrow" with the existing infrastructure. Chief executive Paul Kehoe says: "We have plenty of capacity. Linked to high-speed rail, we are uniquely positioned not only to claw back people from the region who make the long journey to Heathrow but also attract passengers from the overheated South East."