FIVE runways and 207 domestic and international gates.
Yet, only a few decades ago, it was just another airport in another US city trying to make its way in the highly competitive world of commercial aviation. Most people outside Georgia, let alone outside the United States, had no idea where Atlanta was.
So the leaders of that city made a bold move. They resolved that, if Atlanta was to be the great city they believed it could be, they would have to build a great airport. They did, and just look at the results.
Ironically, Birmingham’s leaders had a similar choice after the Second World War. They could expand Elmdon Airport in a modest way, or they could bravely go for – in what admittedly was an uncertain economic climate – an airport to outreach any of their competitors outside London.
They regrettably chose caution, and we have been paying the price ever since. But sometimes in life, you get a second chance, and the leaders of Birmingham, the second largest city of the seventh largest economy in the world, and the wider West Midlands business community, have been thrown a lifeline.
A government-backed Airports Commission is charged with a root-and-branch review of future aviation policy which has created the real possibility of a second hub in Birmingham or Manchester to operate alongside a hub airport in the South East.
It’s a life-changing moment for our region: and it’s a real challenge to all of us to be courageous and visionary enough to grasp it. Luckily, we have at Birmingham Airport a chief executive who ‘gets it’. Paul Kehoe knows this is a one-off opportunity for Birmingham to really punch its weight in the world of international trade. And so Birmingham Airport has now published its response to the Airports Commission’s challenge to deliver long-term aviation capacity, comprising a vision which will boost global connectivity and help create over 250,000 new jobs in the Midlands.
We will already have a runway extension in place by next year, which will triple existing capacity and enable direct flights to China and the West Coast of America. But Birmingham Airport’s submission now envisages a second runway which will not only support growth of up to 70 million passengers but also remove 32,000 people from night-flight noise.
And the plans are about so much more than the airport. They are designed to align with regional development and transport investment strategies which will maximise the social and economic value of major developments – such as the M42 gateway, and HS2 – creating an infrastructure backbone which could plug the greater Midlands economy into global wealth opportunities for decades to come. But – and there is always a ‘but’ – will we have the courage as a city, and as a region, to commit to this brave new world? Unsurprisingly, since the council owns part of it, Sir Albert Bore has enthusiastically endorsed Birmingham Airport’s vision, as have the local Chambers of Commerce, and other business organisations. However, the decision on the vision will be made by the mandarins of Whitehall, and our lobbying track record over the last 20 years on these grand infrastructure projects is, quite frankly, lamentable.
Our local MPs have visibly not mastered the art of putting up a united front in putting the case for Birmingham, and our MEPs are so anonymous that getting them to lobby with a common voice that civil servants will listen to is like herding cats. So it is not enough to maintain our support for Paul Kehoe and his team who are fighting so hard to clinch this opportunity of a lifetime.
We must all insist that our public representatives across the West Midlands join together to unanimously fight for our region’s future in a strategically-planned and resolute assault on those who will actually decide Britain’s future aviation policy.
This is our moment. The moment when we can be like Atlanta all those years ago, and create an airport in Birmingham that will make it the great city it deserves to be. n
John James, a well-known lawyer and businessman, co-founded Birmingham Forward and Birmingham Future, and is a past Chairman of the Institute of Directors in the West Midlands. He is now a professional independent director sitting on the boards of various public and private companies.