Surface transport to airports Contents


1.The Transport Committee’s 2013 Aviation Strategy report highlighted the importance of good quality, efficient and reliable rail and road access to airports which “contributes greatly to the experience of passengers, freight operators and airport employees”. It concluded that surface connections to major airports in the south east are poor and recommended that the Government “develop a coherent strategy to improve road and rail access to the UK’s major airports”, to include an assessment of “the surface access requirements from the growth of aviation, and in particular, the changes to surface access infrastructure that will be necessary if Heathrow expands”. The report referred to the “ample” airport capacity that exists outside the south east of England and the need for greater connectivity between these airports and those in London. The report concluded that “good surface access is crucial to ensure that airports outside the south east are more attractive both to potential passengers and to the airlines providing services”.1

2.Prior to the publication of the Airports Commission’s Interim Report in December 2013, Sir Howard Davies wrote to Chancellor George Osborne to highlight some emerging conclusions of the Commission’s work. His letter explained that “the UK airports sector is experiencing worsening capacity constraints, which are already affecting performance at Heathrow Airport. These constraints are expected to become more widespread over the coming decades, particularly at airports in the South East of England”.2 Improving surface access to the UK’s airports was highlighted as a key priority for Government.

3.Sir Howard argued that “there is a strong case for attaching a greater strategic priority to transport investments which improve surface access to our airports”, adding that “if we are to reconcile the twin objectives of meeting aviation capacity needs and remaining on course to meet the UK’s environmental goals, we need to do more to support a shift towards the use of public transport, particularly rail”. He warned that “even modest enhancements to road and rail links take some time to bring on stream” and recommended that Government “consider schemes specifically related to airport access in the context of [its] future spending plans”.3

4.Sir Howard did not make specific recommendations on proposals for smaller and regional airports in his final report.4 Instead he emphasised the point that “the UK’s regional airports have an important role to play in the UK’s overall connectivity […] Ensuring that the London system is able to provide this connectivity, and that it is accessible from every region of the country, will deliver benefits across the UK as a whole”.5 The Transport Committee’s 2015 report on Smaller Airports stressed the role of smaller airports as “economic enablers” which are “crucial to the maintenance and growth of regional economies”.6 The importance of good connectivity to regional airports is clear.

Why is good surface access important?

5.Limited or poor surface access to airports can constrain growth, adversely affect the passenger experience, and force passengers, employees and freight operators to choose modes of travel to and from airports that exacerbate environmental problems and congestion. The Airport Operators Association has recently described surface access to and from airports as “perhaps the single most important area” to address to spread tourism across the regions.7 

6.The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport commented that “poor surface access inhibits an airport’s ability to compete”8, citing Bristol and Leeds Bradford as examples. Manchester Airport explained that, despite its comprehensive surface transport infrastructure and plans for an £800 million business park adjacent to the airport, the lack of further improvements to the surrounding road and rail network could become “a major limiting factor in seeking to maximise the airport’s potential”.9

7.Aside from reasons of airport and local economic growth, good surface access to and from airports addresses a range of other factors. It can encourage a shift from private to public transport by airport passengers and local people. ABTA explained that modern integrated transport systems can play a decisive role in “offering greater accessibility for passengers of reduced mobility […] and easing surface transport disruptions for the local population near transport hubs”.10 In October 2015, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) published data that showed a marked difference in the way passengers travel to airports, with a much higher proportion using public transport to get to the five airports in London11 compared to airports elsewhere in the UK. The CAA’s policy director said that this raised the question whether regional airports have “the optimum balance of public and private transport options, and whether passengers are aware of all their options for getting to the airports”.12

Our inquiry

8.The Committee’s inquiry set out to examine whether strategic connections to UK airports, which handle at least 1 million passengers per annum, fulfil current and future requirements in terms of range and capacity. The inquiry sought to assess the Government’s approach to planning surface access to airports, as well as understanding whether the Government was making full use of its powers to influence the selection of infrastructure and accompanying modes of transport to and from airports. Non-surface access modes of transport—such as domestic flights—and air quality issues were not included in the inquiry’s terms of reference.

9.We are grateful to the organisations and individuals who submitted written evidence to our inquiry, and would like to extend our particular thanks to those who provided oral evidence.13

1 Transport Committee, First Report of Session 2013-14, Aviation Strategy, HC 78

3 Ibid

4 There has been some debate about the use of the term ‘regional airports’ to describe any airport other than Heathrow and Gatwick. Section 1 of the House of Common Library’s paper on regional airports (SN323) provides a useful guide to how the term came about and how it is used.

5 Airports Commission, Airports Commission final report, 1 July 2015

6 Transport Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2014-15, Smaller Airports, HC 713

7 Airport Operators Association, A Key Year for UK Tourism and Aviation, accessed 3 February 2016

8 The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (STA0030)

9 Manchester Airport (STA0059)

10 ABTA (STA0010)

11 City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, and Stansted

13 Witness names are printed in this report and can be found on the Committee’s webpages

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 24 February 2016