“Boris Island” or Heathrow expansion: Did the CBI just back Heathrow?

Lynsey Barber
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Heathrow gets a boost from the CBI's latest report (Source: Getty)

The CBI looks like it has put its weight behind an extension to Heathrow airport in a blow to the London mayor's Thames Estuary airport plans, otherwise known as “Boris Island".

It comes just days ahead of a decision due from the Airports Commission as to whether the concept of a new airport on the Thames river will be included in the final shortlist of options for expanding air travel capacity. The other options are additional runways at Heathrow or Gatwick or an extension to Heathrow's existing runways.

In a report published this morning, the CBI made its case for a single hub airport with more spare capacity, at the same time Boris Johnson made his last case for “Boris Island” in which he called plans for a third runway at Heathrow “barbaric”.

The CBI said it “recommends hub capacity at a single location as the best way of boosting connectivity with new markets.”

It argues the best option for future economic growth is for a single hub airport with room for new routes and where passengers can easily transfer from one journey to another. New connections to emerging markets such as China and Brazil offer more potential growth than existing markets, it says, calculating eight new routes would be worth £1bn a year.

Deputy director-general of the CBI, Katja Hall, said:

With Heathrow full and the UK slipping behind in the race for new connectivity, it is essential that the Airports Commission delivers a solution that addresses the ticking time bomb of our lack of spare hub capacity. The research demonstrates that spare capacity is important because where a hub becomes constrained, airlines tend to focus on strengthening routes to markets that are already popular, rather than using transfer passengers to spark new routes.

Transfer passengers are the key ingredient that help make new routes thrive, but without spare capacity, they tend to get squeezed out. There is little appetite from business users to land at one airport in the south-east, collect baggage, clear customs and then travel to a dedicated long-haul airport. This means that if we are to spark new connections that drive trade, we need a solution that creates spare capacity at a single-site hub.

While the organisation did not back Heathrow outright, the boss of Heathrow John Holland-Kaye insisted the implication was there.

"This recommendation by the CBI essentially shows that British business is backing Heathrow as the UK's only hub airport to connect the country to global growth," he said.

Gatwick responded to the report saying an additional runway at its airport was the only way to fulfill the criteria.

Expansion at Gatwick is the only option which meets all the CBI's objectives of deliverability, access to new markets, and promoting greater competition. A new runway at Gatwick would liberate capacity for more hub traffic at Heathrow and provide UK plc with two world-class airports, able to address all travel markets and airline models… Once you take into account existing developments in aircraft technology and current aviation trends, it is clear that Gatwick is the best and obvious solution.

Writing in the Telegraph today, Boris said “Heathrow is no answer” in terms of increasing the capacity for air travel.

“There is no government in the Western world that would even contemplate an act so self-defeating, so short-termist, and so barbarically contemptuous of the rights of the population.,” he said.

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