BA’s executive chairman Keith Williams. Photo: Nick Morrish

Faster Thinking

Keith Williams: No stalling over the seventh runway

A recent trip to China put our agonising over Heathrow into perspective, says the British Airways' executive chairman

The sun shone and ice cream queues were lengthy at our recent ‘open weekend’ for customers and colleagues. Experts on cutting-edge aviation technology mingled happily with entertainers of a more mainstream bent from Jamie Cullum to Stavros Flatley. A personal highlight was a tour of an A350, flown over by Airbus for the event. We have 18 A350-1000s on order, and delivery starts in 2018. It is an exciting long-haul aircraft with a size and range that will be an excellent fit for our existing network and offer the prospect of opening up new destinations. And with Rolls-Royce engines and wings built in Flintshire, there's a fair bit of British manufacturing in this aeroplane too.

I've just returned from China, and a visit to each of our three mainland destinations. In Chengdu, the mayor was very excited to talk to me about the city's plans for a new airport, and in Beijing there was huge interest in the construction progress of the new seven-runway hub. Last but not least, Shanghai was looking forward to its fifth runway soon coming on stream. Overall, China now has more than 200 airports, many built or extended over the last ten years - and plans to reach 260 by 2020. The contrast with the UK could not be starker. Does this strengthen the chances of the Airports Commission's recommendation for London becoming a reality? Breaths should not be held.

You may have seen media coverage on the findings of the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) report on an incident in May 2013 when a BA A319 aircraft made an emergency landing after the fan cowls of both engines had detached. Safety is always the overriding priority at British Airways, as I believe our track record demonstrates.

We take all safety incidents extremely seriously and have tried and tested processes to investigate and learn from them. Like the aviation industry as a whole, we encourage an open, no-blame culture in which safety issues can be reported and discussed freely for the benefit of everyone. We immediately conducted our own thorough investigation into the incident and made changes to some of our practices and procedures within weeks.

There are many factors that contribute to incidents such as this, but we are now confident that our actions - along with recommendations set out by the AAIB for the European Aviation Safety Agency and Airbus - should prevent any recurrence of this type of incident.

UK Air Passenger Duty continues to unravel. In the Summer Budget, the Treasury launched a discussion paper on what to do for regional airports in England if APD is devolved in Scotland or Wales. It invited views on three options: devolving the tax within England, varying it by making passengers flying from 'congested' airports pay more, or providing direct aid to regional airports. None of these options looks attractive, which serves to emphasise the risks and complexities of the plan to give the Scottish government control of APD north of the border.

We have argued for a long time that APD is a self-defeating tax that obstructs growth and job creation. If the Government now accepts that view, it should adopt the simplest policy option of all: scrap the tax for everyone.