As Britain begins the challenging process of navigating its way through uncertain times, one thing remains clear: the need for us to continue being a forward-looking trading nation.
The latest predictions suggest that London’s airport system will be full in less than 10 years, which means additional airport capacity is more important than ever to show to the world that Britain remains open for business.
When you carefully weigh up the benefits to the economy of airport expansion and the costs to passengers, in my view, it is clear that the question isn’t about Heathrow or Gatwick (although the latter has some significant advantages over the former). It has to be about both.
At £7.8bn, a second runway at Gatwick would be half the cost of Heathrow’s third runway. And while Gatwick’s expansion would be 100 per cent privately funded, Heathrow expansion would require at least £5bn of public funds for improvements to the road and rail network, according to the Airports Commission.
I’ve spent much of my career working in the travel industry; I started selling flight tickets out of a kiosk at Earls Court in 1980, and I launched Ebookers in 1999, helping people benefit from the boom in low-cost air travel. But low air fares aren’t just about the family holiday. They’ve also helped millions of the UK’s small and medium-sized businesses travel, and export, overseas. Lower airport charges – like those at Gatwick – are crucial to keeping prices down.
Heathrow is already one of the most expensive airports in the world, and its passenger charges (which are added to the price you pay for a ticket) would likely rise to over £40 per passenger to fund their expensive plans. Gatwick, on the other hand, has committed to keep passenger charges below £15 – which it can do because of the lower costs of its proposals.
Furthermore, unlike Heathrow, Gatwick already has land set aside for expansion, which can be delivered by 2025; even using the most optimistic of projections, Heathrow won’t be delivered before 2030.
While both schemes would have an environmental impact, Heathrow expansion would newly affect hundreds of thousands of local people, whereas Gatwick would affect less than 5 per cent of that number.
Ultimately, the Airports Commission found that either Heathrow or Gatwick expansion would deliver virtually the same number of additional long-haul and short-haul routes. Whereas Gatwick wins hands down on costs and environmental issues, however, Heathrow has a larger catchment area and is already running at close to 100 per cent capacity.
So Gatwick is the greener option, and it can be delivered more quickly and more cheaply. But given that it takes 10 to 15 years to build a new runway, I believe that Heathrow needs one too. The conversation should be about building two runways, one each for Heathrow and Gatwick, and a high-speed rail link between London’s two airports.
Our competition is Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam and even Dubai. If we really do intend to show that Britain is open for business, the government needs to back Gatwick as the quicker option, and to back Heathrow at the same time.