Public Affairs: Reinforcing Aviation Messages

An impending Government White Paper on aviation signifies a new era unfolding for this industry. Joe Lepper reports on the emerging opportunities for lobbying

You've seen the headlines - exasperated holidaymakers stuck at Heathrow, environmental campaigners say no to runway expansion, local residents fight against night flights. However, the aviation industry is currently worth £10bn a year to the UK economy and is set for rapid growth.

Five years ago, the Government announced its intention to produce a 30-year blueprint for this industry. It estimates passenger numbers and the use of air freight will increase so quickly that the current provision will soon be unable to cope. More than 180 million passengers pass through UK airports a year; by 2030 the Government estimates this figure could be as high as 600 million.

The consultation period around this White Paper is now over and, according to a Department for Transport spokeswoman, it will 'definitely be out by the end of the year', although it was scheduled for a summer release.

While environmentalists and airlines alike have been involved in lobbying for decades, the consultation period itself heralded a new era for public affairs work on aviation.

When Aviation Minister Tony McNulty told a fringe meeting at the recent Labour party conference, 'this is going to make someone's Christmas', he could easily have been referring to PA consultants. The sheer scope of aviation lobbying activity across the UK covers issues such as airport expansion, the destruction of green sites and the building of new airports. This means the aviation industry has provided, and will continue to do so, one of the biggest areas for lobbying work in recent years.

Chris Wainwright, associate director of public affairs consultancy APCO, whose clients include FedEx and that company's trade body, the Association of International Courier and Express Services, says: 'The level of public affairs activity surrounding the upcoming White Paper is unprecedented.

Airports, airline companies, trade bodies, councils and community groups are all fighting on this.'

Weber Shandwick Public Affairs/ GJW joint MD Jon McLeod agrees. 'Whatever happens with the White Paper, there will be plenty of work up for grabs,' he says.

The opportunities

Several options expected to be proposed in the White Paper could generate lobbying work. In the South East alone, there's the controversial building of a new airport at Cliffe in Kent, a third runway at Heathrow, another runway at Gatwick, and as many as two additional runways for Stansted in Essex.

Meanwhile, in the Midlands, public affairs consultants should keep a close eye on the expansion of either Birmingham International Airport or East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire, plus proposals for the building of a new airport at Rugby.

Elsewhere, there could be additional terminal capacity at Belfast airport, Cardiff airport could gain an 'aerospace park', and Bristol's airport could be moved to a new location, north of the city. Other plans include a new airport at Alconbury in Cambridgeshire and in Scotland, one of the country's two busiest airports, Edinburgh or Glasgow, could gain an extra runway.

Public affairs consultants are already witnessing a source of revenue from local authorities concerning the aviation industry. Medway Council, for example, hired Citigate Public Affairs last year to push its anti-Cliffe airport stance, on both commercial and environmental grounds (see p12).

Another example is the hire of WSPA/GJW last November by a coalition of three councils surrounding Stansted and Luton airports - Essex and Hertfordshire County Councils plus East Hertfordshire District Council.

WS's work for the coalition is an example of the importance of juggling the views of expansionists and environmentalists carefully, particularly as the councils are calling for using existing capacity up to 2015 before deciding on expansion.

WSPA/GJW joint MD Paul Barnes, who works on the account, says the agency has placed itself between businesses and the airlines on one side, and groups such as Friends of the Earth on the other, trying to offer a realistic compromise.

'We're saying that you don't have to have extra runways and expansion; to meet this demand you can manage the existing capacity,' he says.

Public affairs work for the coalition has included a reception at the House of Lords and meeting key people, such as McNulty. East Hertfordshire District Council assistant director of communications Georgina Stanton says a key argument has been to emphasise that proposals for extra runways at Stansted are not properly managing demand.

She believes that Stansted already has room for extra capacity until at least 2015, and thinks it would be wrong to talk now about expansion before it is known whether Stansted can cope. 'It's about having a coherent transport policy,' she explains. 'But this is a long-term strategy, and there will be a continuing need for lobbying.'

Barnes is also confident that aviation issues will continue to provide sources of revenue for PA specialists. 'The White Paper is just a blueprint, it's not written in stone, and there will still be plenty of work to do whatever the outcome,' he says.

Striking a balance

For those arguing for expansion - notably the airlines, freight carriers and airport owners - the challenge is to argue the case on commercial grounds to the Government, as well as make the plans appear as palatable as possible to environmentalists and residents affected by noise and air pollution.

Low-cost airline FlyBE, which currently operates from 17 airports including Exeter, Birmingham and Southampton, is a good example of an airline attempting to meet these challenges. At the last Labour conference, FlyBE managing director Jim French stressed that the company understood that more air travel creates environmental concerns. It called on the Government to adopt a policy of environmental labelling, which would tell consumers about the environmental performance of airlines, airports and the aircraft type being flown. Only informed consumer choice can drive industry-wide improvements in environmental performance and allay any fears.

FlyBE's national and global public affairs business is handled by GPC International, which reports to the airline's PR and public affairs general manager Sara Randall Johnson.

GPC associate director Nick Williams, who is working on the brief, says that in terms of getting further work with the airline, the publication of the White Paper 'is only the start of the process'.

'When it is published, then those involved will have to come up with practical proposals,' he says.

Williams adds that FlyBE's strategy in the run-up to the publication of the White Paper has been to consistently highlight environmental concerns.

Conversely, one of the leading players on the side of expansion, the British Airport Authority (BAA), has encountered criticism about its lobbying machine. Its submission to the consultation concluded that airport expansion is required in the South East, and it is looking to expand one of its three main airports: Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. But it is the option of a third runway at Heathrow for which BAA has come under fire.

During the lengthy inquiry into a fifth terminal at Heathrow, BAA's message was that a third runway was not an option. However, once the Government put it forward as an option in its consultation paper, BAA backtracked and said it would now consider it.

The most vocal of critics of BAA's u-turn was the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. A report by the committee in July stated: 'At best, the company was culpably short sighted, when it told the Terminal Five inquiry that an extra runway at Heathrow would be unacceptable for environmental reasons; at worst it was wilfully misleading.'

BAA's public affairs and PR tactic to counter this criticism was to go on the attack, by attempting to pick apart each of the committee's arguments.

'We took the report and produced what I think was a powerful analysis of why it has significant errors and flawed arguments,' says BAA group director of corporate and public affairs Ian Hargreaves.

He adds that the report appeared to argue for filling up runway capacity and then not build anymore, a logic he describes as flawed. 'Our position was to increase the capacity and then look for further capacity, that is sensible planning,' he states.

Hargreaves is adamant that the best way to deal with the challenge of environmental lobbyists and the views of local people is to address their concerns rather than ignore them.

He points to scientific research that has taken place at Gatwick, measuring the effect of trajectory on noise pollution. 'There is evidence to show that by changing some things we can reduce noise,' he says.

Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner Richard Dyer, who is a lead member of Airport Watch, a lobbying power block opposing expansion, is not so easily persuaded. 'MPs should be aware of any glossy PR from the aviation industry,' he warns.

Dyer further criticised the power of the aviation industry lobby, most notably the pro-expansion Freedom to Fly coalition, comprising around 40 unions, airlines and airport operators, including BAA. 'They are a very well-funded lobby. BAA meets regularly with the Department of Transport, while we would be lucky to get an occasional meeting,' he claims.

Understanding Europe

Given that the airline industry reaches across the globe, there are opportunities to look across the borders when lobbying on aviation matters, specifically to Brussels.

Hargreaves is one in-house practitioner who says he is considering improving links with the European Union. 'I think a company like BAA needs to have a quality level of advice across the board, including Brussels,' he says.

Wainwright, whose APCO aviation practice includes staff in Bonn, Berlin and Brussels, highlights the importance of an international operation when dealing with aviation. 'This industry will always be regulated, whatever happens with the White Paper, and, increasingly, this will come from Brussels. By its very nature it is international,' he adds.

Another example of proliferation of lobbying efforts in Europe is that of Boeing, a member of Freedom to Fly. Earlier this year, the firm appointed Jorif Vos as its first vice-president of EU and NATO relations, a role created specifically to address the increasing need to focus lobbying across borders.

The local level, however, is where Hill & Knowlton MD of public affairs Tim Fallon - a former British Airports Authority head of media relations - believes will be the most lucrative area for PR consultancies. Although currently without an aviation client, Fallon is keeping a close eye on the White Paper. He believes that one likely scenario will be an increase in status for regional airports. 'Regional lobbying is particularly important, and there will be more work out there,' he says.

Encouragingly, there are still a number of potential local-level clients who do not yet have either a sophisticated in-house public affairs operation, like that at BAA, or external support as Birmingham International Airport has. At Leeds Bradford International Airport, for example, a spokeswoman said that MD Ed Anderson handles public affairs himself. How long will bosses like Anderson continue to do this, however, once the White Paper is published?

As an MP for a constituency near Gatwick and a member of the Government, Ivor Caplin is one of a number of key opinion formers bracing himself for a proliferation of public affairs activity surrounding aviation.

He says the aviation industry lobbyists who will impress him when the White Paper is unveiled are 'those that recognise there are two sides to the argument, those that acknowledge the need for expansion in the South East, but are aware of the other arguments, and that this is a national issue', he explains.

Whether it be lobbying on behalf of the airports, the airlines, trade bodies, councils or environmental campaigners, the aviation industry is one PA consultants cannot ignore. The White Paper, and the build-up to its publication, has created a variety of permutations as to how the challenges will be met. There appears to be little chance that headlines on the aviation industry will tail off just yet.

CASE STUDY - PRO-EXPANSION LOBBYING

Although a final decision on plans for the Midlands will not be known until the White Paper is published, it is felt within the PA community that Birmingham International Airport (BIA), which is 49 per cent owned by Birmingham City Council, is set to gain victory in its bid for expansion.

In the consultation document for the Midlands, a number of rival options to expanding BIA were proposed. These were the closure of BIA and the building of a £7bn airport near Rugby, expanding Manchester Airport Group-owned East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire, building a passenger terminal at Coventry Airport, and the transformation of Wolverhampton Business Airport.

BIA's public affairs team, led by head of external relations Brian Conway, with support from five-year incumbent Grayling Political Strategy, acted as soon as the consultation document was released.

According to Grayling director Tony Sophoclides, the options for BIA to consider in the consultation document were either a long runway or a second runway. Both were rejected, and a compromise solution of widening the existing runway was put forward. This, it was felt, would also go someway to appeasing the environmental lobby.

Armed with this option, both the airport and Grayling then set about gaining as much support as possible.

A key body to align with was Advantage West Midlands, the area's regional development agency (RDA). This is particularly important with the Planning Bill in mind. Set to become law next year, this will take planning decisions on matters of regional importance out of the hands of the current planning authorities - in this case Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council - and into the hands of RDAs.

'The RDA broadly agreed that expansion was a good thing because of economic regeneration, but nothing firm,' says Sophoclides. Talks took place between the airport and Advantage, and BIA also sought to show its commitment to region-wide development with a roadshow involving its former MD, Brian Summers.

The result was a firmer commitment from Advantage. In a report, released in June, on possible expansion of commercial flights at other airports in the region, it said that, 'it must be demonstrated that this would not undermine the ability of BIA to... fund expansion, which is in the economic interests of the region'.

BIA's strategy was also to align itself with those opposing the rival proposal at Rugby, most notably the area's MP, Andy King.

Sophoclides says the region's MPs, in general, have been a key target for the lobbying efforts. 'However, there are some you are never going to convince,' he adds, referring to politicians such as Meriden MP Caroline Spelman, whose constituents would be among those most affected by BIA expansion.

Each time a voice such as Spelman's spoke out about the effect of expansion on the green belt around Meriden and Solihull, the aim was to have an MP like King on hand, quick to point out that proposals for Rugby could include the demolition of two villages and 4,000 acres of farmland.

Another strong ally has been train operator Virgin Trains, which operates a fast service from London to Birmingham. Virgin and BIA held a joint event at last year's Labour Party conference.

After this year's conference, one PA consultant not involved with the BIA campaign said: 'The feeling is that it'll be Birmingham airport that will get the go-ahead to expand.'

CASE STUDY - ANTI-EXPANSION LOBBYING

Campaigners against plans to build an airport at Cliffe in Kent were among the most eye catching of lobbyists at this year's Labour Party conference in Bournemouth.

On 29 September campaigners led by representatives from Medway Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and local community action groups, pumped an 18ft inflatable pig full of helium and raised it above the gathering delegates.

This was just the latest stage in a lobbying and PR campaign that got underway last summer, when local people discovered that the building of an airport at Cliffe, on the Hoo Peninsular, was among the options being considered for the Government's White Paper on aviation.

Medway Council was one of the key parties in the debate. It came out firmly against an airport at Cliffe, following local-level consultation that included debates chaired by BBC Radio Kent presenter John Warnett.

According to the council's head of PR Colette Glasson, 'the aim here was to give out the facts, assess public opinion and act on that'.

It was becoming clear at this time that, if those opposing the airport were to succeed, they needed to unite and attack the plans at both a local and national level. This lobby also had the advantage that the plans had very little support, apart from a small group of local businesses and a few members of the Local Government Association's Strategic Aviation Special Interest Group.

Locally, closer links were developed with residents' action groups, local authorities and environmentalists, in particular the RSPB. Kent and Essex County Councils also joined the campaign. Together with Medway, these councils achieved a major victory in winning a judicial review, forcing the Government to consider the previously ignored option of expanding Gatwick, and therefore taking the spotlight off Cliffe.

At a national level, the RSPB, concerned because Cliffe is home to around 200,000 watering birds and wild fowl, was heavily involved, as was Citigate Public Affairs, hired by Medway council for advice.

While the environmental issues were a powerful argument, the source close to Medway's campaign said if the Government was to be convinced, the commercial problems of an airport at Cliffe needed to be highlighted.

Tactics used for this included Citigate surveying airlines to see if they supported Cliffe. The resounding answer, from Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and the British Airports Authority, among others, was that it would be too costly to relocate. An agency source says: 'This was our USP, it was not financially viable, therefore no one wanted to invest in it.'

Citigate also drafted ten 'killer questions' to the Government, including asking how the airport can be built if no one is prepared to invest in it.

The RSPB's tactics were to hammer home the environmental impact nationally and internationally. The charity called upon its vast army of supporters, and produced its own 150,000-signature petition opposing the Cliffe proposal, gained celebrity endorsement from Jools Holland, organised an EU-level briefing and produced T-shirts.

The underlying feeling among those close to the campaign is that Cliffe will not happen. However, publicly the line is still to keep fighting.

RSPB head of PR Paul Lewis is typical of those in the opposition camp when he says: 'While it would not be viable on environmental and commercial grounds to build an airport at Cliffe, we can't afford to be complacent.'

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