Brexit and Heathrow runway decision hotly debated at AOA conference

UK Government Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling talks to conference moderator, Natasha Kaplinsky
UK Government Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling talks to conference moderator, Natasha Kaplinsky

The UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) and the Government’s decision to back Heathrow Airport for a third runway, dominated discussions at the Airport Operators Association (AOA) annual conference today.

Delegates at the Hilton London Metropole heard from a range of speakers, including the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling.

During a Q&A with conference moderator Natasha Kaplinsky, Grayling also quashed any immediate hopes held by Gatwick Airport of being given the go ahead to build a 2nd runway soon. There had been calls and rumours Gatwick would also be given the nod, but he seemed to put this to bed for now.

“That (a 2nd runway at Gatwick) is a debate to look at beyond the 12 months we have and that is one for future transport secretaries,” Grayling says, but he added the “the door is never shut”, although he feels expanding Heathrow means the UK will meet the recommendations made by the Airports Commission for more capacity by 2030 and is the most pressing need.

He explains that he is focusing on what he is dealing with right now, which is doing all the work necessary to get a third runway built at Heathrow and expects a “decision in principle” to be finalised by this time next year when MPs are set to vote on a decision in the House of Commons.

He says the next 12 months will give opponents like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson the chance and time to make their views on the issue, meaning “nobody can say this is not an exhaustive process”.

But Grayling believes expanding Heathrow is “the right decision” for the UK and the aviation industry, as it will benefit passengers and the wider economy, paying particular focus to the fact the hub is the UK’s key port by value and growing it is vital to grow UK exports.

In the light of the Brexit vote, which Grayling supported, he says expanding Heathrow is now even more important: “Britain’s future outside the EU makes the development even more important as we look to be more of a global nation.”

Grayling says it is vital the UK connects to more emerging markets in Asia, Africa and in other regions, as the UK is leaving the EU and explains: “I want us to be a more globally focused nation and take more decision ourselves and be the champion of free trade and deliver better connections around the world.”

But he says new air service agreements will have to be drawn up with the likes of the US and other countries when the UK leaves the EU, but was confident this can be achieved, like it has recently with China, where an agreement has been reached to increase the number of flights operated.

The UK is set to face aviation challenges when leaving the EU and some fear it will not remain part of the EU’s single aviation market, and there are calls for the UK to push for it to be decided before Brexit negotiations begin.

Delegates heard from the Airports Council International (ACI) Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec who warned the UK that decision makers in Brussels see aviation as being part of Brexit negotiations and one of the sectors that make up the negotiations, doubting whether it can be decided before.

He feels Brexit negotiations will be a political discussion, which is “less transparent and with no opportunity for sector agreements” and says in Brexit discussions, airports favour continuity, but non-UK airlines may see opportunities for competitive advantage over UK rivals.

He sees a weaker position for the UK in Brussels following Brexit, which could undermine the EU’s liberal aviation strategy as the UK will not be part of the agenda, but explains ACI Europe is doing what it can. “We want the UK aviation market to remain as integrated as possible within the EU,” he says.

But he feels it “wishful thinking” that the UK will remain part of the EU aviation market, and that airlines like easyJet will be able to fly freely like they currently do while the UK is part of the EU.

Jankovec adds that in Europe at the moment times are “unprecedented” in aviation due to the amount of policy and regulatory uncertainty that exists, along with challenges airports face in security.