Lifting annual flight number cap at London City would generate widespread opposition

by John Stewart, chair HACAN East

 The remarks this week by the new CEO of London City that it might seek planning permission to lift the current cap of 111,000 on the number of flights permitted to use the airport each year has caused alarm. 

Is London City about lifting flight cap?

What is less clear is whether this is the official policy of the airport or simply speculation by the chief executive.  Robert Sinclair made the remarks in an interview with Neil Lancefield who covers transport for the Press Association.

Sinclair is new to City Airport and new to London.  When I’ve seen him in action at consultative committee meetings I have got little sense that he had much idea of the impact of the airport beyond its immediate neighbourhood or of the ill-feeling it had created amongst many communities and local authorities over its past high-handed behaviour.  Unless he was deliberately flying a kite to test reaction, a man more aware of community and local authority sensitivities would surely have spent some effort in preparing the ground before talking about seeking to overturn the current annual cap which local campaign groups have described as ‘the reddest of red lines’.

Robert Sinclair, a New Zealander, was previously CEO of Bristol Airport and, prior to that, was at Auckland Airport.  But, even if he was unaware of the impact his remarks would have on many local communities, the fact he made them probably indicates the way the new owners of London City are thinking.

New owners want return on investment

In early 2016 a Canadian consortium, led by the Ontario Teachers’ pension fund, bought London City for around £2bn, a higher price than it was expected to go for.   They will be expected to make a return on that investment.  City Airport has been given permission to use larger aircraft which will enable it to serve destinations beyond it traditional domestic and near-Europe destinations on a more regular basis which should increase profits.

But what I suspect has surprised the new owners is that for each of the last couple of years the number of flights at the airport has fallen (although passengers numbers rose).  Flights numbers hover around 83,000 a year.  When pressed on the reasons for the fall, the airport has been unable to provide a clear answer.  The suspicion is that its current market making be reaching a plateau.  London City is essentially a business airport.  Business passengers make up over 60% of its customers. For most UK airports they are less than 20% and even Heathrow it is only around a third.

City’s prime destinations have tended to other key business destinations in Europe:  Frankfurt, Luxemburg, Geneva, Amsterdam, Edinburgh etc.  Robert Sinclair’s remarks to the Press Association that it was now trying to branch out into the high-quality leisure suggests that the new owners are concerned that their business market is flattening out.

Expansion would set back community relations

However, any attempt to lift the cap will set back relations with communities and local authorities which have improved in recent years.  The airport has engaged more openly.  The consultative community, under its impressive new chair Duncan Alexander, has been transformed.  And Newham Council, the planning authority, is now doing a good job in monitoring the activities of the airport.  And indeed many in the community welcomed the new owners as people who seemed serious about running an airport (including dealing with it, community and environmental impacts) rather than seeing it simply as an asset to be sold off for a quick buck.

But things could sour again. People don’t need long memories to remember the minimal consultation when the flight paths were concentrated in 2016 – City’s poor consultation, while legal at the time, was one of the reasons reasons the CAA have fundamentally changed the consultation procedures for airspace changes.  People are also angry about the way flight paths had been changed a few years earlier with few people knowing about the change in advance.

A history of discontent

And those with longer memories will recall that when the airport opened it was on the basis that there would be no more than just over 30,000 flights a year using turbo-prop aircraft.  Or that in 1989, just two years after its opening, the airport owners submitted a planning application to extend the runway, allowing the use of a larger number of aircraft types.  Or that in 2002 a jet centre catering for business jets was opened - and that the jets were not to be included in the total number of flights permitted to use the airport.  Or that in 2009 the airport finally got permission to increase flights from to 120,000 a year (subsequently scaled back to 111,000).

Of course the airport has done some things right.  For the very immediate neighbourhood around the airport it has provided money for community facilities and has one of the best insulation systems of any airport in the country.  It has accepted that, because people live so close to it, it cannot have night flights or any flights between midday Saturday and midday Sunday.

Widespread opposition to lifting of cap

But it cannot be stressed enough the level of opposition there would be to the lifting of the annual flight cap.  At present is essentially a rush-hour airport largely serving business needs.  This means that there is a period from mid-morning to late afternoon when there are relatively few planes.  The concern for residents that if the cap was lifted (and more leisure flights started using the airport) the airport would operating flights every few minutes right throughout the day.  And, if the controversial concentrated flight paths remained, aircraft noise would dominate the lives of many people within the affected communities, particularly as a lot of them are also overflown by Heathrow planes.

Because London City is such a recent airport many people lived in their homes long before the airport was built.  The airport and the flights came to them.  But the numbers impacted by London City are set rise significantly even if expansion doesn’t take place due to the vast amount of construction taking place in and around Docklands.  According to official figures over 74,000 people could be significantly by noise from London City over the next few years – which would put it third in the UK behind Heathrow and Manchester.

I appreciate that most of the new homes will have a high standard of insulation and that most of the newcomers will be aware of the proximity of the airport but how clear will London City explain to potential residents the impact of any expansion plans the airport might have?

I do wonder if London City CEO Robert Sinclair was aware when made his remarks of the explosion of anger there would be from many in local communities, in local authorities and amongst politicians across the political spectrum if the airport was serious about wanting to lift the cap on flight numbers.  And, unlike Heathrow, the Government may not ride to its rescue.  It simply does not have the economic clout of Heathrow.