Airport expansion is vital for London’s prosperity – but politicians still do nothing

Gavin Hayes
A significant proportion of UK exports by value go by air

WITH the Airports Commission widely tipped to make an announcement about Boris Johnson’s Estuary airport proposal today, it is important we take stock of what is at stake.

The airports debate is about more than where to put extra planes and runways: it’s about jobs, growth and our country’s future prosperity. International connectivity is fundamental to the UK’s economy, businesses and competitiveness. We do 20 times more trade with countries with which we have a direct air link than those with which we don’t, 40 per cent of UK exports by value go by air, and an increase of just 1,000 passengers a year between our country and another sees trade rise by about £1m.

The problem is that our only international hub airport, Heathrow, has been full for a decade, Gatwick is forecast to be full by 2020, and all the capital’s airports will be at about 96 per cent capacity by the mid-2020s unless we have a government decision to build new runways within the next two years. What’s more, London has fewer weekly flights to seven of the eight growth economies identified by the IMF than rival European hubs, while over 20 emerging market destinations are served by daily flights from other European cities but not London. This is unsurprising given that Paris and Frankfurt have four runways each, Amsterdam six, while Heathrow is left to manage with two and Gatwick just one.

That’s partly why the Airports Commission has modestly recommended one net new runway by 2030. Yet with emerging markets forecast to overtake advanced economies as a share of global GDP by 2024, a new runway cannot be built soon enough.

Britain hasn’t got its collective act together to build a new full-length runway in London and the South East since the Second World War. So whatever happens today, remember that it is not the specific recommendations the Commission comes out with, but the political will to implement them, that has been missing for over 50 years.

It is unacceptable that, so far, no political party or party leader has given a public commitment to build new runways after the next election, despite a clear recommendation from the Airports Commission to do so. And the public is now on side. An ONS survey released in July showed that a majority now supports airports expansion – 59 per cent, up from 49 per cent in 2010.

That is why, today, we are launching a public pledge, encouraging anyone who cares about being able to fly – for pleasure or business – to sign up to show that there is positive support for more airport capacity.

And there’s plenty more political leaders could do to ensure London remains open for business in the meantime. Improve transport to airports to help them attract new airlines, routes and passengers. Make the rail link from Liverpool Street to Stansted world class. Guarantee the Thameslink upgrade serves Gatwick properly. And when Crossrail opens to Heathrow, ensure that Heathrow Express is maintained to provide passengers with a competitive offer. And if the main concern is noise – establish an independent Aircraft Noise Authority.

Enough is enough. When it comes to London’s airports, doing nothing is no longer an option.

Gavin Hayes is director of Let Britain Fly (the campaign initiated by London First). Sign the pledge at