NEXT month, we effectively reach the halfway point in the debate about what extra aviation capacity the UK needs, and where it should happen. The Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, will set out its shortlist. This is an issue the UK has grappled with since the end of the Second World War, and the Commission’s decision could fundamentally change the face of aviation in Britain.
There is one issue that we, at Gatwick, agree with Heathrow on: out to the 2040s, there is only enough demand for one new runway. Therefore, the Airports Commission’s challenge can be boiled down to one simple question. Where can we build a runway that is deliverable, and which gives the UK the economic benefits we need at an environmental cost we can afford?
My absolute belief is that a second runway at Gatwick can meet that challenge, without the disproportionate environmental damage that expansion at Heathrow would bring. Heathrow has more people living nearby who are impacted by noise than every other European hub airport combined. That is why it will always be too politically toxic to ever expand.
Further, the benefit of developing Heathrow as a Mega Hub has been wildly exaggerated, and the airport’s huge shortfalls largely ignored so far. The decision has to be based around long-term aviation trends, and not by looking in the rear-view mirror. How much hub capacity we need as a country should be part of that debate, but it should not be allowed to define it.
With the clock ticking on this issue, as all of London’s airports are starting to fill up, I ask you to think about the following two simple questions: where will we predominantly travel to in the future; and what will the airlines of the future look like to get us to where we need to go? Here is my take.
Currently, 85 per cent of UK travellers fly to North American, European and Middle Eastern markets. Of course, some people will want to fly long haul to new destinations. But where there is demand, it is being met, and will met be in the future from the key London airports. Gatwick, for example, now has direct flights on sale to Indonesia, Russia, China and Vietnam. Indeed, we already fly to more UK and international destinations than any other UK airport, providing the flights people want at prices they can afford. The vast majority of passenger demand in the future, however, is still likely to be for short and medium haul destinations. You don’t need a Mega Hub airport to do that.
We are also seeing the strong growth of low cost carriers, as easyJet’s recent financial results show. As this market continues to accelerate, we can expect to see low cost carriers having higher frequency flights on key routes, and more businesses using these airlines. We have even seen low cost carriers – in the form of Norwegian – announce that they will start low cost services direct to New York and Los Angeles from Gatwick next year. Crucially, they will be using one of the next generation of aircraft called “hub-busters” – the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – which will increasingly transform our access to destinations around the world.
Unlike Heathrow, Gatwick has the ability to service both low cost and full service airlines, both transfer passengers and people flying direct. We are one of the cheapest airports in Europe for passenger fees, with some of the highest service standards. Heathrow, meanwhile, is already unaffordable for the low cost carriers, and its expensive expansion could strangle these airlines’ future growth – damaging the fastest-growing and most transformational segment of the aviation market. Heathrow already has among the highest passenger charges of any airport in the world and further expansion would see fares rise significantly, driving competition out. It will be the British consumer that pays through the nose and carries the burden.
But above all, businesses tell me they want certainty, especially after 70 years of inaction. Expansion at Gatwick can happen, and it can happen faster than anywhere else – and with airport charges significantly lower than at Heathrow. That means the UK can reap more economic benefits more quickly, and avoid the decades of uncertainty that would blight proposed expansion elsewhere. The debate needs to move on from exaggerated claims about options that are never likely to happen, to viable and deliverable solutions that are future proof.
Better for business. Better for all passengers. Better for the environment. Expansion at Gatwick is the best solution for the UK.
Stewart Wingate is chief executive of London Gatwick.