Airport capacity in London and the South East has become a dominant issue in UK transport but it’s not the only formidable challenge before the industry.
The closure of Blackpool Airport last week is a reminder of the pressures airport operators face in a highly competitive market where costs have taken off spectacularly since 9/11.
The impact of UK taxes in the form of Air Passenger Duty coupled with rising security costs have been highlighted by the British Aviation Group, the representative body for UK companies involved in airports, as a pincer movement that threatens the UK’s competitiveness.
Working in the industry, I’m aware that APD has risen six times in as many years, with rates soaring since 1994, when the tax was introduced.
Then, passengers paid £5 per person to fly to short-haul destinations and £10 to travel farther afield. Now a family of four travelling in economy to the US or Canada, for example, will be forced to pay £276 in APD.
The British Aviation Group is far from alone in pointing out that security is a matter for the state but that it’s actually airport operators and passengers who tend to carry the cost. The International Air Transport Association, the global trade association for airlines, draws attention to the fact that the European Commission plainly states that security is the responsibility of the state and should not be funded exclusively by the transport industry.
IATA says: “Security has been increased to meet the enhanced measures required by new legislation. This has resulted in significant increases in security costs that have been passed on by airports to airlines. The lack of clear information on responsibility for costs, revenue and efficiency makes it difficult, however, to implement in a fair and transparent manner.”
IATA also points out that security providers in most airports are not a part of the regular consultation process - and airlines are often excluded from determining the requirements and costs of security services.
All this while international decision makers are requiring airports to invest in security, without defining who will pay for the additional cost. I understand this often leads to individual interpretations of international agreements, laws and policies regarding charges.
I’m also aware that a lack of consistency is also evident when you compare flying to other forms of transport. Many governments expect aviation to pay for its own security, whereas the cost of security for other modes of transport and public areas, such as train stations and stadiums is, to a greater or lesser degree, subsidised or fully funded by the state.
The airlines and airport operators have sought to manage the extra security demands by a variety of means, including new technology such as body scanners in the hope of speeding up security clearance.
There is also a lobby around airlines giving preferential screening for low-risk travellers. The obvious concern is that airports are wasting billions of pounds on unnecessary security checks for travellers who pose no threat to planes.
As long ago as 2011 IATA, whose members include British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and more than 200 global airlines, said main airports were struggling to cope with mounting layers of safety regulations that now cost the financially troubled industry £4.6bn a year to implement.
Tony Tyler, director general of IATA, said: “We spend a huge amount of resource on screening people who quite frankly do not need it. We need to find a better way of doing it. Apart from the cost, we are putting our customers through an immensely complicated and, most of the time, unnecessary, hassle. And airports are creaking at the seams to find the space and capacity to deal with this.”
He backs a programme being developed by the US Transportation Security Administration, where low-risk passengers could be given less stringent checks if they supplied information including frequent flyer details and travel records. He also restated the view that governments should pay for aviation security, not airports, airlines and ultimately passengers.
“Aviation security is a matter of national security and state security,” said Tyler. “It is not something that airlines should have to pay for. Businesses don’t pay for police on the streets, the cost is met by general government revenue. Yet for some reason aviation is singled out to pay for security against threats that have nothing to do with aviation but more to do with powerful geopolitical forces.”
Blackpool Airport might not be Heathrow in terms of capacity but its struggles are a matter of sadness for our industry and the region it served. Its closure should be a reality check for anyone in government who is tempted to take the challenges facing UK airports lightly
Keith Cannin is director of airports at Morgan Sindall