MIAMI — If reports of a UK government study recommending expansion at London Heathrow give rise to déjà vu, you’re not alone. Sir Howard Davies, the head of the Airports Commission, has just submitted his report in which the commission issued “clear and unanimous” conclusions that adding a new runway and terminal complex to the northwest of Heathrow is the optimal solution.
The UK needs to start work quickly on expanding Heathrow, which is still creaking at the seams even with 2008’s Terminal 5 and the brand new Terminal 2. As Davies highlights in his foreword to the report, “No new full-length runway has been laid down in the South East of England since the 1940s”. Competing airports in Europe — principally Frankfurt FRA, Paris CDG and Amsterdam AMS — are not constrained by two-runway operations.
Unsurprisingly, business has been lining up behind Heathrow. Expansion at the LCC-dominated airports of Stansted and Luton, both significantly to the north of London with fewer and less-developed transport links, was ruled out early. These airports, like larger Gatwick to the south, are simply not desirable for longhaul operations.
Gatwick: fine for holiday travel, but not a longhaul expansion option
The Airports Commission’s report states, “for intercontinental travel, there is no real alternative to Heathrow, particularly for travellers who value high frequencies of connections.” London Gatwick “has presented a plausible case for expansion. It is well placed to cater for growth in intra-European leisure flying, but is unlikely to provide as much of the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long-haul destinations in new markets.”
Gatwick has improved its terrible reputation significantly in recent years, particularly with the opening of new facilities currently used by British Airways in the North Terminal, and there is further opportunity for improvement when BA, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet swap terminals later this decade. Even if it is no Heathrow, there is certainly room for Gatwick to be part of the London airport ecosystem.
Yet LGW has one of the most irritating duty free mazes in the world, through which it expects business travellers to push their way past milling holiday shoppers spritzing themselves with Calvin Klein Thing or Chanel Numéro Whatever as they sling as much duty free plonk as they can fit into their trolleys. And there are parts of the airport that don’t seem to have been updated since the 1980s.
Any airline that can move from Gatwick to Heathrow will do so. That’s been clear for decades, as all the US airlines have left Gatwick for Heathrow, and most recently with the shift of Vietnam Airlines to LHR too. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic use Gatwick for longhaul leisure destinations and BA’s top-up flights to European destinations, again often leisure-focussed.
NIMBY and environmental Heathrow objectors have shot themselves in the foot
Airlines and aircraft finance providers need certainty to be able to plan for a fleet that will last twenty years. A British Airways that needs to plan for a two-runway LHR will look very different (with larger aircraft flying less frequently) than one that can plan for a three-runway LHR (with smaller aircraft offering more frequencies).
The anti-Heathrow campaigners who have stalled LHR expansion for so long fall into a number of interest groups, principally those against noise or pollution and people who bought houses near a major international airport yet complain about aircraft flying nearby.
Yet all those groups have ensured that their interests have deteriorated over the years they have been fighting, because airlines haven’t been able to plan for a future with the quietest, most efficient aircraft — and Heathrow hasn’t been welcomed to the table to make a reasonable agreement with people in Sipson and other nearby communities that allows for decent compensation and noise mitigation measures. That now needs to change.
Unfortunately, with a significant number of senior Conservative MPs holding seats near Heathrow, we can look forward to little more than pork-barrel wrangling that is to the UK’s detriment.
“Having completed our assessment,” Davies says unequivocably in the letter presenting the Airport Commission’s reports to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, “our decisions are clear and unanimous. It is now for the Government to reach its own decision on how to proceed. The Commission’s analysis was detailed and comprehensive and we appreciate that you will need to review it carefully. But we would urge you not to prolong that process any more than is necessary, if the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub is to be secured.”
The MPs (many of whom are Government ministers) objecting to any expansion at Heathrow need to start thinking of the interests of the UK as a whole rather than continuing to wring their narrow-minded constituency NIMBY hands.