Our aviation policy, it's really up in the air

Following last month's Cabinet reshuffle, one of the urgent priorities for the new Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, will be to complete the ongoing government review of aviation policy and set out a coherent and credible strategy.

This will be no easy task, especially given that prior to the last general election, the Conservatives ruled out the building of a third runway at Heathrow.

It will obviously be a major challenge to seek to balance the interests of those parts of the business community who wish to see an expansion of air travel to and from the UK against those who fear that their communities will be blighted by the resulting increase in environmental pollution.

It is clearly right that the concerns of residents and environmental campaigners must be carefully considered when one is weighing up the merits of important topics such as the viability of building additional runways or terminals, the possible creation of a new airport in the South East of England or the establishment of a single hub linking Heathrow and Gatwick via a high speed rail link - the so-called "Heathwick" plan.

Not increasing air traffic in and out of the UK could cost the economy £1.6 billion a year by 2021

But simply saying no to all possible options for increasing air traffic to and from the UK cannot be regarded as a realistic alternative.

According to a recent report issued by Frontier Economics - commissioned by the airport operator BAA - the fact that Heathrow cannot sustain additional flights to developing countries may already be costing the UK economy in the region of £1.2 billion each year as business goes to Continental European airports.

The same report predicted that this figure could rise to £1.6 billion per year by 2021. At a time of continuing sluggish economic growth this is a very worrying development which we can ill afford.

There is also the fear that the combination of greater demand for air travel and constrained supply will lead to higher airfares and increased congestion over our skies, resulting in additional costs for both businesses and consumers.

However, perhaps the most damaging aspect of all is the lack of a clarity on exactly what our national aviation policy is going to be. Determining that policy is unlikely to satisfy everyone but it is a decision which does need to be made and the sooner that happens the better.

Jonathan Morris is a partner at the international law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP

    Last updated: 11:58am, November 3 2011