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Runway views - which do you agree with?

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Since the Committee for Economic Development said that it was looking again at the idea of extending the airport runway to enable larger planes to land in Guernsey strong views have been expressed by islanders both in support and opposition. Two such views have been carried in the Guernsey Press over the last few weeks. One from former Environment Department minister and pilot Yvonne Burford and the other by commercial pilot Tim Robins, who has 30 years' experience in the aviation industry. Readers can add their thoughts at the bottom of the articles.

Change is a constant. On a small island, sea and air links take on a particular importance and maintaining these links and keeping them affordable is an enduring topic. So, the idea of extending the runway certainly bears thinking about. The question is, does that idea stand up to scrutiny?

Previous investigations concluded that there was no benefit to be had, and none of the airlines operating in Guernsey needed a runway extension for their future plans.

Nevertheless, the newish Committee for Economic Development have agreed, by a majority, to spend many tens of thousands of pounds on consultants to look into the matter again. Various figures have been bandied around as to how much this extension would cost. Deputy Ferbrache has confirmed that he's made a bid for funds from the Capital Prioritisation programme set to go before the States next month. But we don't know what that figure is and the policy letter is unlikely to make it any clearer.

However, extending the runway is not just about installing a strip of tarmac. There's also re-routing of roads, compulsory purchase of houses and fields, the repositioning of approach lighting and the enormous civil engineering task of levelling land that falls away considerably.

There's only one reason to make the runway longer and that is to accommodate aircraft that need a greater landing or take-off distance than is currently available. One might be forgiven then for assuming that there are a dwindling number of airlines with aircraft that can fit on our current runway. Not so – there are at least 15 airlines based in the UK or on the near continent that have aircraft which could happily use it just as it is, with seat capacities ranging from about 16 to 122. Small passenger aircraft are not going to disappear any time soon. They're needed for small regional airports and on thinner routes. So maybe the first question to ask before spending anywhere between £40m. and maybe up to £80m. of taxpayers' money is why none of them are coming here now? It isn't because of the length of the runway.

Of course, no discussion of a longer runway is complete without mention of easyJet. The lure of a headline fare of £9.99 is seductively attractive, not least when compared with a last-minute half-term Aurigny ticket at 15 times the price. However, the average price for an easyJet ticket across their network is £63. While a few are paying a tenner, others are paying £150 for the same trip.

Presently, two-thirds of Aurigny's Gatwick flights sell for £67 or less. And, for the time being at least, this also includes free hold bags. Perhaps the average price difference isn't quite as large as imagined?

And even if the fares from a large, low-cost operator might be a little cheaper, due in part to some costs being transferred from the passenger to the Guernsey taxpayer, what percentage is that saving of holiday here or a trip away? When it's hard to find a great deal of accommodation locally for much under £100 a night, maybe air fares aren't the only or even the main reason people don't travel. Perhaps what also needs addressing is better utilisation of Aurigny's aircraft to reduce the taxpayer subsidy and maybe a different pricing structure? It is to be hoped that the long-awaited reports into Aurigny provide some innovative solutions.

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But all this debate about fares is largely academic. Advocates of extending the runway have not produced a shred of evidence that easyJet would come here if the runway was lengthened. It's also worth saying that easyJet's business model includes aggressive negotiation of airport fees. In short, they would rather not pay any. Loss of revenue to the States could therefore be significant. And that income would have to be made up through increased taxes or charges elsewhere. The only route that a 150-seater aircraft could feasibly operate on a daily basis is Gatwick. If the States were to license another airline on the Gatwick route Aurigny's days are numbered.

Comparisons are often made with Jersey and the services they have. But Jersey's population is half as large again as Guernsey's, the demographic is different and the tourist offering is different. Jersey also has numerous destinations operated by aircraft that could come here now. But they don't – and it's not the runway length that's stopping them.

Some claim that easyJet could operate a regional service, such as Liverpool. Currently, Guernsey has a twice-daily service to Manchester, enabling day trips and also myriad global connections. Even if there were any chance of filling a 150-seat aircraft to Liverpool, it would certainly be at the expense of a popular, useful and year-round service to Manchester. Be careful what you wish for.

Others hope for new routes to the continent. In the not-too-distant past it was possible to fly from Guernsey to Zurich, Amsterdam and Geneva among other destinations. These services were operated on aircraft with seat capacities of around 35 and they could not be sustained. There is simply no possibility that they could work with an aircraft four or five times that size.

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There are those who say that lengthening the runway is futureproofing against Gatwick charging more for smaller aircraft such as the ATR. Ironically, the same people seem to have little concern about losing our Gatwick slots to a third party who could pack their bags and leave any time. But, with the UK Government having given the green light to Heathrow for a third runway, maybe Gatwick won't be turning business away any time soon. In any case, there are other, less expensive ways of mitigating this issue.

In a final act of desperation, those who believe in a pot of gold at the end of the (longer) runway throw up the idea that bigger aircraft could do triangular routes with Jersey. And, indeed, a couple of such routes exist now. But triangular routes are absolutely not low-cost operator territory. They're time-hungry and it's impossible to maximise the load factor because of the overlapping sector in the middle. They are the territory of small aircraft making a go of thin routes.

The idea that by being able to accommodate an aircraft with 30 more seats than is currently possible, we are going to magically transform the tourist, leisure and business travel markets is pure, unfettered, expensive fantasy. And the cost of that fantasy? The repayments on capital, plus lost airport revenue could be anywhere from £4m. to £7m. a year. And it will be taxpayers who pay. Less tangible, but equally concerning, would be the loss of security on our lifeline routes and the inevitably reduced flight frequency that larger aircraft bring. Six return flights a day to Gatwick would be cut to three with no guarantee that there would be a red eye. It's also hard to imagine that the commitment to getting people home in times of poor weather would be as strong.

Now let's face reality.

The airline business is capital intensive, has high regulatory/fixed costs, operates at razor thin margins, and (outside Guernsey) has become ever more competitive. Many UK and European airports are capacity constrained and therefore have to maximise the efficient use of that capacity to satisfy demand. Faced with the choice of a regional turboprop carrying 50-70 passengers or a jet carrying 120-160, it is clear why airports will continue to price in favour of volume carriers and against small niche regional operators.

Larger aircraft carry lower seat mile costs, enabling airlines to offer lower fares provided seats can be filled. Those aircraft do however need longer runways.

Industry trends inevitably favour larger aircraft, and Guernsey can't/shouldn't close its eyes to that uncomfortable truth.

Contrast these hard facts with the belief by some that 'we can get by with an Embraer, and rely on small turboprops to safeguard our frequency of service'. That 'we can buck the trend, save on unnecessary investment in airport infrastructure, do not really need competition, and should just make do with what we have'. Is that really a convincing strategy?

Yvonne claims 'previous investigations concluded that there was no benefit to be had, and none of the airlines operating in Guernsey needed a runway extension for their future plans'. Read through BAe Systems report from January 2003, commissioned by the States of Guernsey, and you'll see that this statement is factually incorrect.

The Executive Summary on pages 4 and 5 stated: '…the predominant trend in aircraft utilisation, relative to airports such as Guernsey, is toward medium sized regional jets, with a less regular but consistent, requirement for the handling of small versions of Boeing 737 and Airbus aircraft. Access for this type of aircraft will ensure direct future links to major airports and their respective business centres. Additionally, the links to these airports will allow convenient transfer to more distant destinations.

'The performance characteristics of these types of aircraft demand a runway length of approximately 1700m. in order to provide efficient range and payload capabilities.

'The current runway configuration is suitable for turboprop type aircraft, but applies serious restrictions on most jet types.'

For Yvonne to say 'none of the airlines operating in Guernsey needed a runway extension for their future plans' is also untrue.

The States' main reason for purchasing Aurigny was British Airways' relatively sudden withdrawal from the Gatwick route in June 2003, and the ability to acquire those Gatwick slots from BA. However if you dig deep in the archive (not something politicians seem to have an appetite for) you'll discover that the main reason BA withdrew from Guernsey was the planned disposal of its small ATR-72 fleet (and its Avro RJs) to concentrate on operating larger jet types such as the Boeing 737-400 and Airbus 320. Both these types required a longer runway. So Jersey with its 1700m. runway kept its BA service to London. Guernsey didn't.

Here we are 14 years later, still bickering over whether or not to invest in an airport fit for purpose (able to accept the Airbus and Boeing workhorses operated by almost every other scheduled or charter airline).

Yvonne's next claim: 'One might be forgiven then for assuming that there are a dwindling number of airlines with aircraft that can fit on our current runway. Not so – there are at least 15 airlines based in the UK or on the near continent that have aircraft which could happily use it just as it is, with seat capacities from 16 to 122. Small aircraft are not going to disappear anytime soon.'

In reality small aircraft have been disappearing rapidly from many airlines fleets. There may indeed be 15 airlines able to use our runway, but contrast that with over 30 airlines fifteen years ago and maybe you get a better picture of where the Industry is heading. Aircraft types such as the Avro RJ, BAe-146, BAe ATP, Fokker 70/100, Jetstream 31/41, Saab 340/2000 have been stripped out of the fleets operated by major airlines and their regional subsidiaries. Replaced by a combination of 737s, A-320s, and Embraer Jets (requiring a longer runway to operate on meaningful sector lengths – not just Guernsey/Gatwick). The 15 airlines Yvonne mentioned tend to be niche regional operators or specialist ACMI charter companies – very few of them affiliated with major carriers, and virtually none who are able to offer the economies of scale, the brand reach, or the connectivity which a 737 or A-320 operator can usually provide.

My heart always sinks when I hear the runway debate (or discussion regarding route licensing, ownership of Aurigny, and other air transport issues) descending into local views on the pros and cons of EasyJet. This debate should not revolve around EasyJet, Aurigny, or any other single operator. A longer runway gives the island, and all airlines, one vital thing we presently don't have – choice. The choice to operate here, fly further afield, innovate/experiment with new routes (triangulated or otherwise). The ability to offer new services, increased connectivity, differentiated products and lower fares.

Should government act primarily as a facilitator/enabler of services, providing infrastructure? Or should it be acting as owner, service provider, regulator, judge and jury on all matters relating to the provision of air links? Withholding infrastructure spending on a runway extension (believing this to be an effective means of keeping out other airlines and protecting either of the two home based carriers) would be a very blunt tool indeed. Short-sighted and extremely foolish.

Leaving aside EasyJet and Aurigny, how about comparisons with our sister island Jersey? The tired old claims that because Jersey's population is bigger, demand there can support larger aircraft (which supposedly Guernsey can not). Isn't this the classic 'chicken and egg scenario'?

Jersey may indeed have 'open skies', more visitor attractions, more hotel rooms etc. But it also has the vital infrastructure (a 1700m. runway) to enable new services and support economic growth. How does Guernsey intend to attract new business, raise visitor numbers and enable economic growth if most airlines can't fly here? Hoteliers, retailers, and others are unlikely to invest if they feel infrastructure is poor and they can't see any potential for growing their business.

Some time ago Yvonne stopped flying to pursue a career in local politics. Yet the impression given is that she is still in touch with industry best practice and the many changes which have taken place in aviation over the last 15-20 years. How often does she now travel off-island by air? Is she aware how connectivity has suffered as a result of poor infrastructure, the failure to invest, and Guernsey having become wholly reliant on a duopoly in air services shared between two sub-scale home-grown carriers?

Yvonne may have good reasons (based on passionate environmentalist beliefs) for not encouraging growth in air transport. However withholding infrastructure spending on that basis would be suicidal for our tourism and finance sectors. Not having a longer runway is already jeopardising airlines' ability to fly here, and by default the public's ability to access cheap/reliable air travel. A lack of choice and service providers inevitably restricts innovation, the ability to drive demand and increase visitor numbers. Attracting new business and stimulating economic growth becomes virtually impossible if poor runway infrastructure prevents competition and restricts access.

There may indeed be 'no pot of gold', no cast iron business case, and no guaranteed return on investment. But did our forefathers insist on such guarantees when deciding to construct a deep water harbour for St Peter Port in the 19th century? Or did they follow conviction, common sense, and gut feeling – taking a bold/visionary decision that would ultimately future-proof the island's harbour infrastructure for decades to come?

We hear much from Deputy St Pier about Future Guernsey and the need for a strong sense of vision to safeguard the island's future. Surely it all depends on what that sense of vision entails. Do you see the Bailiwick's future as an innovative, confident, mature and outward looking jurisdiction, able to hold its own and compete for new business (in any sector – finance, tourism or IT)? Or do you see Guernsey as a quaint reminder of times past, a place to pursue hobbies and lead a quiet life, a safe haven for high net-worths and venture capitalists, a place to shelter from capital gains, a niche economy dominated by a small cabal of influential individuals – many with significant vested interests in 'not rocking the boat' and maintaining the status quo?

Future-proofing our airport is essential, and Deputy St Pier will need to show leadership, courage and conviction on this issue. Hiding behind the need for 'evidence-based spending, deciding to 'wait and see', or 'kicking the can another 14 years down the road' just will not do.

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