Flight prices from the UK will increase, route choices will fall and the economy will suffer unless the country's government develops a long-term aviation policy that includes sustainable airport capacity growth, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) warned today.
In its new Aviation Policy for the Future report, the CAA notes that measures introduced so far to address capacity concerns in the southeast UK are "short-term fixes and are not enough to maintain the UK's direct access to global markets alone without additional runway capacity".
Capacity constraints at London airports are likely to mean that they will increasingly become "less able than airports in other European cities to adjust as global economic activity shifts to emerging markets such as China, India and South America", according to the CAA.
Lack of capacity at London Heathrow, for example, is already affecting the UK's ability to liberalise air services agreements with other countries and "this trend is likely to become more acute as London's airports become more congested", said the regulator.
UK chancellor George Osborne said in November that the government would explore all options for improving airport capacity in the southeast UK, with the exception of building a third runway at Heathrow. But the CAA makes the point that Heathrow's "size and the scope of its network mean that it is unlike other UK airports", and the fact that it is operating at up to 99% of capacity is putting airlines off launching services to emerging markets.
As a result of congestion, the CAA predicts that fares will increase significantly and consumers will therefore be negatively impacted.
"Additional capacity would offer significant benefits for consumers, and for the UK as a whole, so long as it is delivered in an environmentally sustainable way," said CAA chief executive Andrew Haines.
"However, as we haven't built a single runway in the south east of England capable of handling Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s for over 70 years, the difficulty of increasing capacity is obvious. This underlines the importance of an integrated policy framework that addresses environmental and planning dimensions as well as consumer need."
Haines added that the challenge facing the government is to create an aviation policy "that stands the test of time - not a policy for five years, but one for 30 years".
"If the private sector is to have sufficient confidence to deliver additional capacity then it needs to be convinced that government policy is based on robust evidence and is likely to last for at least a generation," said Haines.
In addition to boosting capacity in the southeast UK, the CAA is calling on the government to "ensure that the very high levels of short-haul connectivity that consumers enjoy are at least maintained at current levels".