Birmingham Airport has urged the government to name it officially as one of Britain’s major national airports, as managers engaged in a war of words with rivals at London’s Heathrow.
Paul Kehoe, Birmingham Airport’s chief executive, said the airport could help the region’s economy to grow and tackle the devastating long-term unemployment that blights parts of the West Midlands.
But he warned that it required formal Government endorsement in order to win credibility in China and India.
He was speaking to The Birmingham Post as the aviation industry awaits the findings of a government review into air capacity.
This was due to be published in March but has been delayed until the summer, prompting speculation that Ministers are reconsidering pleas from Heathrow Airport to be allowed to build a third runway, possibly followed by a fourth in future decades.
Conservatives firmly ruled out allowing a third runway to proceed while in opposition, but Heathrow has lobbied for a change of heart and London First, an organisation representing businesses in the capital, is pushing for a new runway to go ahead.
Birmingham has argued that it can supply a short-term solution to the problem of lack of aviation capacity in the south east, and a longer-term alternative to a new runway at Heathrow, particularly when it is connected to the planned high speed rail line running from London to Manchester and Leeds, which will include an “interchange” station near the airport and the NEC.
Colin Matthews, the chief executive of Heathrow owners BAA, recently claimed that airlines would never offer flights to China from Birmingham. Speaking at an aviation conference last week, he said: “If there’s no room at Heathrow then flights will move out of the UK altogether.”
But Mr Kehoe insisted this was untrue.
“They have said to us that they will consider Birmingham. And businesses locally tell us they want direct access to China.”
Firms such as Shanghai Automotive, owner of Birmingham car manufacturer MG Motor UK, and Midland-based Jaguar Land Rover, which has been enjoying record Chinese sales and so need regular flights but staff currently to travel there via London, he said.
But Birmingham required the endorsement of the government to have “real credibility” in countries such as China and India, Mr Kehoe said: “That is how those countries run their economies and having that endorsement makes a difference.”
With the right backing, the airport could help the Government achieve its stated aim of “rebalancing” the British economy and creating wealth in the regions outside London and the south east, he said.
“We will do the deals. We will do the marketing and bring home the bacon, but it is going to be tough. What we are saying to Government is, endorse us as a national airport.”
More than 140 businesses operated at the airport, employing 6,000 people. But the number of jobs could be doubled if passenger numbers increased.
“Think of the economic benefits that could accrue to Birmingham and the West Midlands. But one of the issues standing in our way is the prospect of a third runway at Heathrow.
“What BAA has done is to conflate the UK’s interests with London’s interests, but they are not the same thing.”
While BAA appeared to believe Britain needed a single major hub airport, at Heathrow, Germany was showing that a multi-hub system – with major airports at Frankfurt, Munich and Dusseldorf – was possible, Mr Kehoe said.
He also warned it was a mistake to “put all your eggs in one basket”, as any airport could potentially be knocked out of action by extreme weather conditions or other incidents.
“When we are overseas and saying ‘come to the UK’, the perception is often that there is only one solution. We can’t continue in that vein.
“We need to do something different. Birmingham Airport can play its part and we need Government to help us.
“We can help to rebalance the UK economy. What you don’t see around Heathrow is third and fourth generation unemployment, but you see it in the West Midlands.”
And bringing passengers into the West Midlands would benefit the regional economy as a whole, he said.
“The fruit does not fall far from the tree. You see the economy around the M4 corridor overheating while parts of the country are very cold indeed.”
Mr Kehoe said he believed Heathrow was an impressive and well-managed airport, adding: “I’m not saying we are going to replace Heathrow.”