Written statement to Parliament

South East Airports Taskforce

South East Airports Taskforce to improve conditions and make most of existing airport infrastructure.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Theresa Villiers

On 15 June 2010, the government announced the establishment of the South East Airports Taskforce with representatives from the aviation industry to explore the scope for measures to help make the most of existing airport infrastructure and improve conditions for all users. I chaired the taskforce. Its focus was on action at our 3 biggest airports - Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Today I am announcing the publication of the taskforce’s final report.

The taskforce was given a challenging remit. It had 12 months to identify operational improvements that could enhance the performance of these airports and bring benefits to passengers. The report is the culmination of a year long programme of work across seven areas, including punctuality, security and border controls. It sets out the issues considered by the taskforce and its conclusions.

I would draw particular attention to the chapter on improving punctuality, tackling delay and strengthening resilience. The focus of this chapter is on Heathrow, which is the UK’s biggest, busiest and most capacity constrained airport. The main recommendation is that the scope for establishing a set of operational freedoms at Heathrow should be explored. These would enable the greater use of tactical measures in defined and limited circumstances to prevent or mitigate disruption and to facilitate recovery. These measures are consistent with our commitment to runway alternation at the airport and there would be no increase in the number of flights at the airport which will remain capped at current levels.

Tactical measures, such as operating twin arrivals streams for limited periods to tackle inbound delays, are already used at Heathrow; implementation of these proposals would mean greater use of such measures on days when the airport faced particular disruption. The taskforce has concluded that such an approach would deliver benefits, particularly in improving reliability, but would also mean some limited redistribution of noise when measures were applied.

The work carried out so far indicates that the proposals could result in net environmental benefits, for example through reducing stacking and cutting the number of unscheduled flights during the night period. However, on the limited occasions where these freedoms would operate, some communities would be likely to experience aircraft noise during current respite periods; hence the need for safeguards to ensure they are deployed only to anticipate, prevent and mitigate disruption and to facilitate recovery.

Before any commitment is made to implementing such operational freedoms, better evidence is needed of the potential benefits and impacts. I am therefore announcing a phased trial of operational freedoms at Heathrow. The trial will provide firm evidence on the benefits and impacts of these measures and will provide a basis for consultation with local communities before a decision is taken on whether the proposed additional operational freedoms should be adopted on a permanent basis and what safeguards should apply in relation to their use.

The trial will be in 2 phases to enable evidence to be gathered for both winter and summer operations. Following engagement with local communities, the first phase will run from November 2011 to February 2012, followed by a 4 month period of initial assessment and further engagement on how the regime might be refined to mitigate any impacts of particular concern and deliver additional benefits.

The second phase will run from July 2012 to September 2012, providing the added benefit of enabling greater resilience during the London Olympic and Paralympic Games when the UK’s airports will be under more pressure than normal. The trial will be undertaken by BAA, the airport operator, under the supervision of the Civil Aviation Authority, the independent aviation regulator.

BAA will be required to engage fully and transparently with relevant local authorities, communities and other stakeholders throughout the process, particularly on the monitoring of noise impacts. Once assessed, the results of the trial will form the basis for a consultation with local communities which would in due course inform the government in deciding whether an operational freedoms regime should be adopted at Heathrow.

I am grateful to the taskforce members not only for their constructive input into the taskforce over the past few months, but also for their continuing commitment to delivering real improvements for passengers. I intend to reconvene the taskforce in a year’s time to review the progress made.

Copies of the report document are available from the department’s website.

Published 14 July 2011