Written evidence submitted by Airport Operators Association


  1. Introduction


1.1.  This response is submitted on behalf of the Airport Operators Association (AOA), the trade association representing the interests of airports across the UK. The AOA represents over 40 airports and is the principal body engaging with the UK Government, Parliamentarians, and regulatory authorities on airport matters.


1.2.  AOA welcomes the JCNSS inquiry as it highlights the role that Critical National Infrastructure (CNI), such as airports, play in providing the essential services that the UK rely upon. Airports are a major component of the UK’s transport and economic infrastructure and their resilience is vital to the UK’s welfare.


1.3.  Airports are a facilitator of social and economic activity. In a normal year, our airports enable almost 300 million passenger movements: UK residents going on highly valued holidays, leisure and business visitors coming to the UK, people connecting across the UK, and business travel supporting the UK’s place in the global economy. Airports are also vital for freight – 40% of the UK’s non-EU trade by value travels by air. In a normal year aviation contributes more than £92bn to the economy each year, supports a million jobs and provides more than £8 billion in tax revenues to the Exchequer.


1.4.  Our response will set out a brief context of the financial situation airports find themselves in, before setting out a detailed response to the call for evidence


  1. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Airport Finances


2.1.  It is important to note how the impact of COVID could impact the ability of airports to invest in resilience due to the constraints on capital expenditure. This once-booming sector has suffered its worst crisis in aviation’s history due to COVID-19. Between April-Dec 2020, passenger numbers were down nearly 90% year-on-year. This has had some major economic impacts:


2.1.1.      Economic output for the air transport sector between Feb -Dec 2020 reduced by 89%.[1]

2.1.2.      Prior to COVID-19, UK aviation supported around 960,000 jobs and £57bn in GDP.[2]

2.1.3.      On 31 July 2021, 51% of staff in the air transport sector were still on furlough.[3]

2.1.4.      Research by business consultancy Steer for the AOA shows that by 2025, between £32 billion and £95 billion of industry GVA is projected to have been lost relative to 2019.[4]


2.2.  At the end of 2020 consultancy Steer, at AOA’s request, projected three anticipated recovery scenarios for UK aviation. The central one of these indicted that the UK would not return to normal levels of traffic until 2025. But reality in 2021 has been worse than the most pessimistic of Steer’s projections. The losses to airports and airlines are massive – as is the continuing damage long term to UK connectivity.


2.3.  To survive this period, airports are supporting current cash flow needs through first running down their capital expenditure funds and then taking out commercial loans or securing additional funds from investors. This will need to be repaid over time once business returns, and these repayments, combined with the highly leveraged situation of airports at present make raising further funds highly difficult.


2.4.  Consequently, the scope to invest in other projects has been decimated. This affects the transition to sustainability, improving airspace and even restoring routes that have been lost. Airports will often have to take on upfront costs to persuade airlines to start/restart routes. An airport’s commercial responsibility will now not be able to secure investment as early as before, which will have detrimental effects on the UK’s economic interest.


  1. Climate Change Impacts


3.1.  The reality of climate change will clearly have direct impacts on all infrastructure, including airports. We will seek to address these one by one. 


3.2.  One adaptation issue to address will be the knock-on effects of mitigating climate change itself. The drive to move to net-zero emissions will mean new technologies and fuel sources whose resilience may vary from traditional operations. For example, battery-powered or hydrogen-powered aircraft will need to be refuelled in different ways and new ways of supplying airports with sufficient electrical power and/or hydrogen will require robust and resilient supply chains. Aviation and airports will need to be continuously reviewing resilience impacts of these new and emerging technologies.


3.3.  Another aspect is, at the macro level, that an potentially increasingly negative view of the appropriateness of aviation amongst the public could impact passenger numbers. This would then threaten the commercial viability of UK connectivity.


3.4.  If climate changes drives changes in disease patterns this could also affect the operations of routes/destinations, at least in the form of increased health screening requirements.


3.5.  Whilst climate change overall is a major negative phenomenon for airports as well as society, it is also important to acknowledge that some potential impacts might not be adverse – for example changes in local weather conditions could increase the desirability of parts of the UK for inbound holiday travel. However, this is only one scenario and others (increased rainfall for example) could make the UK less attractive.


3.6.  Clearly the most direct effects will be on physical infrastructure and operations. Physical impacts will come through changed patterns of rainfall/snowfall, temperature, and wind. Infrastructure building and renewal needs to take account of and prepare for these in the next decade. Operational conditions may also vary, for example due to increased prevalence of fog and high winds. Extreme weather events are already a threat to the resilience of UK and international movements, this can be expected to increase. For some airports, rises in sea levels combined with increased extreme weather may also create resilience issues (in terms of affecting surface connectivity rather than airports sites directly).


3.7.  If not managed correctly, climate change has the potential to negatively affect the quality of UK connectivity. This could be through a new standard of operational non-optimisation and/or through periodic extreme disruption (e.g. airport or even airspace closures). Having a global connectivity network for passengers and freight that cannot be relied on could have knock-on effects on UK business and society, beyond the direct effects on our sector.


3.8.  Selected airports were due to report on their climate change adaptation progress by the end of last year, with a practical deadline of this January. Once the reports are finalised, AOA will produce a short sector summary of them, which we would be happy to share with the Committee.


  1. Required Policy Approach


4.1.  Airports in the UK are separate commercial organisations. Their issues have much in common with other sectors such as seaports, retail sites, and distribution centres. Aviation is also by its nature international. Consequently, there will need to be an active role for government in drawing together the relevant communities for the purposes of research, ensuring understanding, promotion of necessary change and, in some cases, direct support and delivery of it.


4.2.  The AOA agrees that partnership working will be key to managing the resilience risks to aviation in the UK and ensuring the UK retains a high-quality degree of connectivity. We accept that not all issues are the responsibility of the Government to solve and note that airports are committed to addressing all issues that they can. Airports are by nature long term investments and plan their future operational needs on that basis.


4.3.  We are generally content with the current government approach of requiring reporting and supporting and encouraging adaptation work. Government needs to ensure that interconnected resilience issues are addressed. Airspace modernisation is a prime example of this, improvements in which would positively affect all resilience issues including climate change.


4.4.  Government should continue to provide information about the likely impacts of climate change on infrastructure and aviation, monitor progress of adaptation work and support the sharing of best practice, whilst providing funding where necessary – e.g. collective research around the needs and solutions. Adaptation should be supported through the planning system to ensure that airports can deploy solutions.


4.5.  Airports are reliant on surface connections for onward journeys for passengers, and therefore require that government ensures other transport infrastructure providers (eg Network Rail, National Highways, local authorities, etc) also deliver resilience through adaptation. However, our needs extend beyond transport into fuel supply/sourcing, energy/electricity supply, water supply and IT/communications networks.


  1. Other Airport Resilience Issues


5.1.  For context, we believe it is important to note the other issues that have resilience implications for airports. Resilience issues are interdependent, so issues in any of these areas could impact climate change resilience.


5.2.  Airport Capacity: The resilience of the UK airport system is inextricably linked to the fundamental issue of capacity. Mitigating the impact of an event is often challenging, given current capacity constraints, particularly in south-east England. While the Department for Transport (DfT) has an existing policy statement for airports to make best use of existing capacity, this can only take the UK airport system so far. Further capacity will be necessary to provide optimum air transport network resilience in the coming decades and how capacity would be best delivered. The planning system should allow for this.


5.3.  Airspace restrictions: Capacity restrictions may not just be about ground infrastructure. Constrained, unoptimised UK airspace will reduce the resilience of the aviation sector in the UK, preventing increased flexibility and capacity for a range of contingency operations. Airspace modernisation would build in extra resilience t the UK system. Government should continue to provide funding for this process as unless collective UK-wide action is taken airspace efficiency will not be maximised.


5.4.  Security: Terrorism and criminal activity will continue to be a major threat to airport. As technological systems evolve cyber-threats will only increase in importance. Increased availability and use of drones will also increase risk factors for airports. Government will have a leading role here given the interdependency with national and international security issues – airports will not be best placed to develop individual solutions, this should be done at the national level.


5.5.  Surface Access: Better surface access to airports can help build resilience into the national transport system. How the railway network and strategic road network can offer adequate resilience for expected growth in international passenger travel and freight movement is crucial. This complementary resilience would ideally be addressed by a high-level of integration between the government’s air, maritime, road and rail strategies. There needs to be an examination of the resilience of airports in their role as transport interchange hubs, linking road, rail and air networks. Surface routes will be impacted by similar climate related considerations as noted above, and government should ensure progress in the surface transport sector.


5.6.  Pandemics: Whilst it is to be hoped the impact of Covid is not repeated, either through this or another virus, the problems of 2020/21 have shown that we are not currently best placed to manage health issues at the border. This has the consequence of artificial restrictions on movements beyond those intended for health purposes – such as queue, additional bureaucracy and uncertainty. As Government controls border requirements, clearly they will have leading role in ensuring futures border systems are fit for purpose – some of this will need to be through international initiatives.


14 January 2022



[1] Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and the impact on output in the UK economy: December 2020 (London: ONS, 12 February 2021)

[2] IATA, The importance of air transport to United Kingdom (Madrid: IATA Economics, 2019), p.1

[3] HM Revenue & Customs, Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme statistics: 29 July 2021 (London: HMRC, 1 September 2021)

[4] AOA, A UK Airport Recovery Plan, p. 7