model Twiggy and her partner and manager Justin de Villeneuve boarding a BEA aircraft
Back to the future: Heathrow in 1968, with model Twiggy and her partner and manager Justin de Villeneuve boarding a BEA aircraft © Getty

Britain faces a tough decision. More people are flying and airports are edging towards capacity. The UK needs extra runway capacity in the southeast, but where? Politicians arrive at a solution: to set up a commission to identify a location.

But this is not the commission set up by the government in 2012 and led by Sir Howard Davies, the economist. This was 1968, when the Roskill Commission was charged with recommending a site for a four-runway airport in the southeast.

The Roskill panel selected Maplin Sands in Essex, legislation was passed and then … nothing happened. Six years later, the plan was dropped, grounded by its £1bn price tag.

The story of the Roskill report is a stark reminder of the formidable challenge the UK faces in trying to expand its aviation capacity. Whatever the recommendations of Davies’ Airports Commission in its final report next year, the certainty is vociferous opposition from dissenters.

But the aviation industry and businesses have demanded that, this time, action must be taken, warning that the cost of delay would be grave.

“We need politicians to stop dithering,” says Gavin Hayes, director of the Let Britain Fly campaign, set up by business lobby group London First. “Britain is already quickly falling behind and given that it’s going to take at least 10 years to get new runway capacity online, we need politicians to make a decision urgently.”

The lobby group says International connectivity is vital to the UK retaining its status as a leading global hub, arguing that it is crucial the UK establishes air links to emerging markets. It highlights that 26 destinations in emerging economies, including Brasília, Lima and Bogotá, are served by daily flights from some European cities but not London.

It is a point Heathrow airport emphasises, warning that it cannot keep up with rivals in providing flights to China. “If we’re going to win the race for growth, we’ve got to be better connected and have more direct flights to those markets than the French and the Germans,” says John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow chief executive. “We cannot do that if we have no new capacity.”

Paris has 63 weekly flights to mainland China, Frankfurt about 60 and Heathrow 44, Holland-Kaye says. The west London airport, which has been shortlisted by the Airports Commission to build a third runway, is almost at capacity, with more than 73m passengers in the year to the end of July.

Heathrow has built its case for expansion on the argument that the UK needs more flights out of a hub airport, where passengers can transfer to flights to a wide range of destinations. But it has faced strong opposition – its flight paths are above areas of residential London and more flights and noise are a serious concern.

Heathrow briefly lost its status as the world’s busiest hub for international passengers this year, when Dubai took the top spot with 18.4m travellers in the first quarter. Dubai’s numbers dipped again during building work, but it has announced plans to increase capacity to 200m passengers annually. Dubai and other Gulf airports such as Doha and Abu Dhabi have expanded to meet demand, and many see them as the hubs of the future. Turkey is set to be another, with a six-runway airport being built at Istanbul projected to be able to handle 150m travellers a year.

“It will be a whole new global ball game,” says David Bentley, chief airports analyst at CAPA Centre for Aviation, a consultancy. “The consensus is we are losing out, and if we can’t get new capacity, we are going to lose out further.”

Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick airport, says: “The question isn’t how important Heathrow is. The question has to be: are we [in the UK] going to get the long-haul destinations and the European services we require?”

The future of flying will be shorter point-to-point routes, he argues, dominated by low-cost carriers and opened up by the advent of smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft.

Gatwick too is on the Airports Commission shortlist for another runway, the estimated cost of which is up to £9bn. Heathrow’s third runway is estimated at up to £18bn.

Another option of a new hub airport in the Thames estuary, pushed by London mayor Boris Johnson, did not make the shortlist and was finally ruled out by the commission this month. Studies found immense environmental challenges and costs from transport links would push its price tag to well over £100bn.

The commission will give its final report after the UK general election next year. Whoever is in power then will find themselves in much the same position as politicians did almost half a century earlier, facing a weighty decision and a still-greater sense that time is running out.

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