Justine Greening faces growing calls to support the development of regional airports rather than commit resources to building a hub in the Thames estuary, a scheme seen by many outside the south-east as a costly white elephant.
The transport secretary this week met Birmingham airport officials who asked that she use a report next month on aviation policy formally to recognise the role that Birmingham and other regional facilities can play in easing crowding in the capacity-constrained south-east.
“The aviation white paper must recognise the opportunity to distribute aviation in a way that economically benefits the whole UK – not just the south-east,” said John Morris, Birmingham airport’s head of government and industry affairs.
He also warned against rushing into a commitment this spring to build a hub airport, a project that has won backing from Boris Johnson, London mayor, as well as some Downing Street officials.
Instead, Birmingham and its peers could offer “breathing space” while the government considers solutions to the capacity crunch, including ideas that abandon the premise of a single hub. “Whatever the long-term solution, what’s needed now is some calm reflection,” said Mr Morris.
Birmingham is not alone in encouraging Ms Greening to consider a so-called distributed model for aviation. Bristol airport said about 5m journeys a year were made by people living in the south-west but travelling through London airports and argued that by “clawing back” those passengers, it could help ease capacity in the south-east.
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group, whose four airports serve 24m passengers a year, said: “There are the equivalent of seven or eight runways’ [worth of] capacity spare at the moment. They present a more sustainable and cheaper alternative than building a new airport.”
He added that rail could be better used to connect UK cities, a view Ms Greening appeared open to when she told the BBC on Monday that some Londoners could get to Birmingham as quickly as they could get to Heathrow on the Underground.
But many industry experts argue a single hub is essential if the UK is to compete for routes with the likes of Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam, since a critical mass of both domestic and transfer passengers is needed for airlines to add supply.
BAA, the operator of the current hub, Heathrow, backs this view. It wants Ms Greening to consider all options for increasing capacity, including the third runway at Heathrow that her party ruled out.
Southampton airport agreed: “We believe all possible solutions should be on the table. Each option has pros and cons and none should be excluded without examining it properly.”
Al Titterington of Newquay Cornwall airport went further, arguing that “the only realistic option to safeguard London’s position and grow the UK economy is not a new hub airport in the Thames estuary – it is a third runway at Heathrow. The sooner this is acknowledged the better it will be for the industry and UK plc”.
Birmingham airport also called on Ms Greening to encourage economic growth in the regions by cutting air passenger duty for some new routes.