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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Flying Visit to London

By Emma Antrobus, Transport Policy Manager at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce

On Monday, I went to give evidence to the Transport Select Committee on aviation capacity, based on the Chamber’s submission made in Autumn 2012, which included views from our members.

Although I have visited the House of Commons many times, I have never given evidence before and was somewhat nervous, although I was not alone on the panel being grilled by MPs – alongside me there was Jerry Blackett, the Chief Executive of Birmingham Chamber; Garry Clark, Head of Policy at Scottish Chambers; and Paul Gilbert who is the Chairman of Liverpool Chamber’s International Chamber.

Despite the snowy conditions, my train journey was uneventful and I arrived early at the Houses of Parliament. After a little game of ‘spot the famous face’ through the corridors and central lobby, I went to sit in on the previous evidence session with speakers from City of London Corporation, London First,  CBI, IoD, and Mike Spicer from British Chambers. There was a lot of focus on wider economic implications of aviation, and particularly the capacity constraints of the South East airports.

Then it was my turn. There were five members of the Transport Select Committee in attendance for this section, including two Manchester MPs, one each from the Midlands and London, and chaired by Louise Ellman MP from Liverpool. The first question was looking for specific examples of businesses affected by constrained capacity in aviation, and responses focused largely on the desire of business travellers to access direct flights from their local airports. Last year, around 200,000 passengers from the North West flew to Hong Kong – widely recognised as the gateway to China – despite there being no direct flight from Manchester or anywhere in the North West. I made the point that businesses will continue to operate but the lack of convenience and time costs will impact on their profitability. 

In discussing Air Passenger Duty, the entire panel were in agreement on the potential benefits to regional airports of variations in APD, particularly to support the use of spare capacity whilst the South East airports are so congested. I quoted the example of Air Asia X who were looking to start a service from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur but were deterred by the level of APD and now operate the route from Paris – when taken in the context of Malaysia’s economy which is growing at 4.6% per year and that 74% of global economic growth is expected in the “developing” countries in Asia and South America. These are opportunities that we cannot afford to miss out on.

The role of HS2 in transforming the need for short haul flights was discussed – we are currently awaiting the details of the route to Manchester and Leeds, and hoping that there will be a station at Manchester Airport.

The issue of surface access was also considered. Manchester Airport is quite well connected to the rest of the transport network, certainly in comparison to other airports. But I made the point that the country is in desperate need of a fully integrated transport strategy that means that different modes are complementary and offer credible alternatives for travellers.

And then, the time was up. The session had flown by and the panel decamped to the corridor outside for a rapid debrief. I felt confident that I had acquitted myself reasonably well and made most of the key points that I wanted to make. Next trial was a trip on the underground at rush hour followed by the stampede for the first Manchester train after the peak hour had finished at Euston. There is still much work to be done on transport .......!  

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