I was asked, at short notice, to chair a seminar yesterday on the government's policy on sustainable aviation in the UK, organised by political consultancy Dods and supported by Boeing. It being Westminster, the small but influential audience comprised largely politicians and representatives of trade associations, lobby groups, agencies and local authorities. The panel was veteran MP and former transport minister Sir Peter Bottomley; Richard Mills, strategy director at Boeing UK; Simon Buck, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association; and University of Southampton aviation and environment expert Roger Gardner.
It was a heated, if well-mannered debate - with some fascinating inputs from Gardner and Mills on progress towards commercially-viable biofuels and air traffic management advances. But inevitably the discussion did not take long to get around to the one fundamental question: how can the coalition government on the one hand say it supports economic growth and particularly the promotion of sectors such as manufacturing exports, inward investment and tourism, while at the same time categorically ruling out any new runways at London Heathrow or elsewhere in the south-east?
It was an apparent contradiction that flabergasted Buck, spokesman for the "voice of UK airlines". Sir Peter spoke eloquently of the very real dilemmas facing politicians, who have to balance short-term expediency and the wishes of local constituents and lobby groups against what will help long-term development.
As chair, I had to remain neutral, of course, but I am perplexed by the stance of a government that purports to be pro-business...even if at the same time "the greenest government" of all time. How does the UK hope to compete with cities such as Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt when its main hub airport is already at capacity and has no potential to grow...beyond a bit of slot tweaking around the edges?
It is like the owner of a busy Spar supermarket on a high street, with strict planning restrictions and no car park, trying to attract customers from three out-of-town Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's megastores, all within easy driving distance; people will use the local store when they have to but no matter how much the Spar does to stock the goods customers want, modernise the interior or provide a friendly face behind the counter, the majority are going to opt for the selection and better shopping experience of the superstores.
Saying the solution lies in spreading demand for Heathrow to other South East airports, like Gatwick or even Manston or Southend, is just like opening a few more corner shops along the same street.