An airplane lands at Heathrow airport, near London, U.K., on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. The U.K. government gave BAA Ltd. the go-ahead to add a third runway at Londonís Heathrow airport, overriding objections from environmental campaigners and residents in favor of boosting capacity. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News

Britain’s aviation future will depend on a three-runway hub airport, says a leading transport think-tank, lending weight to the option of expanding London’s Heathrow.

Only such a hub would allow airlines to provide an extensive network of long-haul routes, according to research by the Independent Transport Commission.

Heathrow has been shortlisted by the body set up by the government to study how best to increase the UK’s flight capacity. Gatwick airport has also been shortlisted in the interim report from the panel, chaired by the economist Sir Howard Davies.

Adding its voice to many in the aviation industry who have urged the government to take action to expand flight capacity, the think-tank warns the UK is already falling behind its European rivals.

“Regular long-haul routes need transfer passengers to supplement those starting or ending journeys locally,” said Peter Hind, author of the ITC research.

“Hosting a hub will remain key to sustaining and or developing global aviation connectivity.”

He added: “More UK passengers already transfer via Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle hubs than through Heathrow. Amsterdam, Paris and others are able to compete with London by hosting growing networks.”

Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam offer many times better connectivity to emerging market destinations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, and especially to those such as Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. Direct flights to these destinations would prove valuable to companies looking to export or extend business to those countries.

The research points out that Heathrow now serves fewer destinations than in 2005. Without new capacity, airlines would be likely to focus on safe routes to mature markets, it noted.

Heathrow is operating at virtually full capacity, with Gatwick also close to that point.

A hub airport, such as Heathrow, offers transferring passengers a wide range of connecting flights to onward destinations and contrasts with airports that offer so-called point-to-point flights.

The research does not explicitly recommend Heathrow over an option such as the London mayor’s Thames estuary hub, however, the estuary hub was not shortlisted by the panel and Boris Johnson has fought to keep the idea alive.

The Davies commission will make its final decision next year.

The findings go against Gatwick’s plan to add another runway, in its dispersed hub model.

John Strickland, an aviation consultant, said: “A three-runway hub is certainly what’s needed. There are no cities in the world where hubs are split into fragments, because the idea will not work.”

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