For my sins I have been travelling through Heathrow for forty years and throughout that time it has maintained a continuously bad reputation.
In the seventies, when I was still a kid I hasten to add, I flew from Amsterdam to Washington twice a year. The only connection was British European Airways (BEA) to Heathrow and then TWA to Washington. It was a rule when travelling back that our luggage would not make it and that it would be delivered to our doorstep a day later.
Heathrow never changed. It was always behind the times and despite having one of the best domestic markets in Europe it was continuously threatened by Paris and Frankfurt and even by little Amsterdam. Long after everyone else had a decent terminal with good connections (or one terminal in the best cases) Heathrow finally built a fifth terminal, whilst terminals one, two and three remained dreadful.
For years the only way to get to Heathrow without a car was to take a taxi or the underground, which was possibly the most unhospitable way to travel in the Western world. Finally the Heathrow Express was built, though I have to admit it was after I stopped using the airport.
The reason is that investment in a good London airport has never been taken seriously. We have always hidden behind ‘lack of money’. It is not lack of money, it is lack of vision leading to a lack of willingness to make a bold decision to invest in the future.
When we look at investing in a core part of our operations (Heathrow is a core part of the UK plc operations) we have to look longer term. The time comes when it is important to make an investment which will take you beyond what the competition offers.
One company I am working with needed a big investment like this, though nothing compared to Heathrow I hasten to add. We spent over a year looking into every angle and we have just completed our investment, on time and on budget. Our resource is now 5 to 10 years ahead of the market and will allow our organisation to maintain its excellence for years to come.
Hong Kong was faced with a similar problem to London. It had an ageing airport which was ‘sporting’ to land at, but was not sufficient to meet the needs of the local economy. The Hong Kong government was bold and built an island on which it built a new airport, with a state of the art transport system linking it to Hong Kong itself.
Combining Heathrow with Gatwick is a daft idea. Both airports suffer from out of date facilities, even though Gatwick is much better than Heathrow. Both airports have insufficient runways as they are and whilst some efficiencies may be gained, it will only buy a very limited amount of time.
It is time to start with a clean slate and to be bold. Dare I say it but BoJo (Mr. Boris Johnson) is right to push for a brand new airport in the Thames estuary. The idea removes a lot of the risks and annoyance of flying over heavily populated areas, as well as providing the opportunity to move ahead of all the competition. I know it has an environmental impact, but then every airport does. Flying is not environmentally friendly, but we are not going to stop doing it.
In these economic times we will also benefit from the massive injection of capital into a sector which will help develop our economy much more than the banks, namely the building sector. I would of course prefer to see it support Enterprise Britain, but I think the impact will be quicker if we build a spectacular airport and the impact will be long term.
The scale of a project like building an airport in the Thames Estuary will not only benefit the economy, it will also be a major marketing exercise for UK plc. The world will be interested in the project, will follow it and it will pull investment into the country. It will show that the UK can still be visionary and a force to be reckoned with. It will do a lot more for the country than pouring a trillion pounds into banks or bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or whatever victim we can find next.
I can only hope that the Heathwick plan dies a quick death and that we get on with the BoJo plan and I look forward to the revival of Enterprise Britain as a direct result.