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The importance of regional airports

by Karen Dee Airport Operators Association

When people talk about airports in the UK they very often focus on the battle between London’s airports to win Government support for a new runway.

Now that issue has been decided in Heathrow’s favour and while politicians across the country are engaged in the General Election campaign it is a good time to focus on the unique role that regional airports play around the UK.

It is striking that when I talk to MPs from the regions, while they have widely divergent views on many other issues, they all agree on the importance of their local airports to their constituents and businesses.

While other transport modes also play an important role in regional economic development, airports are essential for economic development across our regions and the national and international outreach and speed of air connectivity is unparalleled. These airports allow every regional community to be part of the national economic and social fabric and connected to Europe and beyond. For the most remote corners of our country, they also provide vital accessibility.

Contributing to growth across the UK

The UK’s regional airports are important catalysts for regional economic growth, enhancing the economic performance of other sectors and facilitating the inward investment in services, products and tourism that helps communities to flourish. Aviation supports businesses that want to export, with 40% of the UK’s trade travelling by air. Regional airports also support tourism in their area, with 73% of visitors to the UK flying here.

Another example is that regional airports are a crucial part of regional strategies to attract and retain investment and growth. All the business surveys that I see indicate that the vicinity of an airport is one of the key company location factors. So not only do regional airports have a positive impact for already established local businesses, they are also essential to attracting new companies and diversifying economic activity.

In some remote parts of the country, such as the Highlands and islands in Scotland, there are few efficient alternatives to air travel and airports in regions like this provide access to essential services such as health and education, as well as allowing local businesses to be connected and local people to travel for work and leisure.

It is interesting to note how the liberalisation of air traffic rights across Europe and the emergence of new low-cost airlines have helped many regional airports to experience significant growth over the last few years. From figures published by the UK’s Department for Transport and our European trade ACI Europe, we can see that regional airports have increased their share of international passenger traffic.

A bold agenda for the new Government

My organisation, which represents over 50 UK airports, is taking the opportunity of this summer’s General Election campaign to explain to Parliamentary candidates how, if they are elected, they could help to persuade the Government to adopt a policy framework that is more supportive of regional airports. We need to avoid a costly one-size-fits-all approach to regulations and we want the Government to adopt a fair framework for growth for all UK airports.

We are calling for a bold agenda to support the better use of existing capacity, a plan to enable aviation to become more sustainable and a strategy to give more support to smaller airports. That means taking a closer look at the disproportionately large regulatory burden that smaller airports must currently bear. The Government should also seek to build on the success of the Regional Air Connectivity Fund with a further round of investment in start-up aid.

Traditionally General Elections are a time when the emphasis is on political division – but, given the unanimity across the political spectrum about the essential role that regional airports play, it shouldn’t be too difficult to build a political consensus that a regional airport-friendly policy framework would be a win-win scenario for the whole country.