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There are 50 UK airports that can be considered as ‘regional’, defined here as any airport outside of London with scheduled passenger services. As well as contributing to regional, national, and international connectivity, these airports are often significant providers of employment for their local communities. Noise and carbon emissions generated by flights to and from regional airports are often controversial issues, especially when airports wish to expand.

Airport ownership

Regional airports can be fully privately-owned (e.g. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Southampton, Leeds Bradford), a mix of public and private ownership,  whereby an airport is owned by both local authorities and private investors (e.g. Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle), or fully publicly-owned (e.g. Scottish island airports, Cornwall). The general trend since the 1980s has been a move towards private ownership, an explicit aim of the Thatcher Government. However, local authority (co-)ownership remains common and has seen some increases in recent years.

Public Service Obligation (PSO) Routes

It is possible to ring-fence regional flights to a national hub (such as London, Glasgow or Cardiff) by creating a Public Service Obligation (PSO) route. PSOs subsidise routes that might not otherwise be commercially viable. PSO routes are currently used to connect Scottish Islands airports and Glasgow; Cardiff and Anglesey; Newquay and London Gatwick; Dundee and London Stansted; and Derry and London Southend. PSOs have generally replaced other forms of ‘start-up’ aid for regional air routes. In the 2021 Union Connectivity Review, conducted for the DfT by Sir Peter Hendy, one recommendation to Government was to revise existing PSO rules to allow routes between regional airports outside of London.

Slot Allocation

Some airports are congested because they do not have enough capacity to meet demand from the airlines and other aircraft operators who wish to use them. Slot allocation is used, at the most congested airports (known as Level 3 or ‘coordinated’ airports), to allocate and manage limited capacity. All London airports, plus Manchester and Birmingham, are coordinated airports. Bristol is also coordinated from 23:00 to 07:00 in the summer season. The Government has loosened the ‘80:20’ or ‘Use it or Lose it’ rules in place for coordinated airport slots due to pandemic flight disruption. In 2022 it said it was actively looking at reform of the airport slot allocation process to improve use of airport capacity.

Airport expansion and carbon emissions

Many regional airports have had ambitions or formal plans to expand their capacity. Expansion proposals which are deemed Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs) require Development Consent Orders, where the Secretary of State makes the decision. Decisions over smaller expansion proposals are determined locally by local planning authorities.

In its recommendations on the sixth carbon budget, published in December 2020, the Climate Change Committee argued that caps on airport expansion and/or passenger growth are necessary for the UK to meet its carbon emission reduction targets. In 2021 the Government said that it can meet these targets through new aviation fuels and technology instead.

Impact of Covid-19 pandemic and Government support

In 2020 and 2021, all UK airports saw passenger numbers and revenues decline due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government has spent around £8 billion pounds in pandemic support for the aviation industry up to February 2022, via economy-wide measures including the Covid Job Retention Scheme (or ‘furlough’ scheme) and Covid Corporate Finance Facility (CCFF), and sector specific support such as the Airport and Ground Operators Support Scheme and Business Rates relief to airports.

In October 2021, the Government also announced a reduction in Air Passenger Duty (APD) for domestic flights in a bid to improve domestic aviation connectivity. The reduction will come into force in 2023.

Airspace Modernisation and Noise

Under the May Conservative Government, a programme of Airspace Modernisation began in 2017, coordinated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The intention of this ongoing programme is to streamline aviation routes between UK airports, to reduce delays, noise and unnecessary aircraft emissions.

Devolved Administrations

Civil aviation is a reserved matter and all UK airports and airlines are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). However, devolved administrations do have powers to fund PSO routes and provide other support for flights, which can help increase traffic at regional airports. In Northern Ireland for example, APD is partially devolved. Unlike other nations of the UK, direct long-haul flights to and from Northern Ireland are not subject to APD.

Further information on related topics can be found on the Aviation topical page of the Commons Library website.

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