Gatwick has warned it will not build a second runway at the airport if ministers also allow simultaneous expansion of Heathrow.
Sir Roy McNulty, Gatwick’s chairman, told the Financial Times his airport would also be wary if it was only allowed to expand sometime after Heathrow constructed a third runway.
Sir Roy’s intervention highlights the complex and fraught task of devising a solution to the UK’s airport capacity crunch, which an independent commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies is investigating. The Airports Commission is due to issue an interim report next Tuesday that is expected to have a shortlist of potential locations for new runways.
Sir Roy, a former chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, said on Wednesday that building a second runway costing up to £9bn at Gatwick was a “bet the company type of investment” that would only secure an acceptable return if Heathrow was not allowed to expand.
“We do not think we would get our money back on the investment in a new runway for at least 15 to 20 years,” he said. The timescale would extend to 30 to 40 years if Heathrow was allowed to build a third runway at the same time, he added. “What businessman is going to make an investment of that nature?”
Gatwick opposes a third runway at Heathrow, and Sir Roy insisted his airport was better placed than its larger rival to support the most important European aviation phenomenon of the past decade: the rapid expansion of low-cost carriers on short-haul routes. Gatwick’s largest airline is easyJet, which has overtaken British Airways to become the UK’s largest airline by passengers.
Sir Roy also claimed Heathrow’s push for more runways was undermined by the expansion of hubs in the Gulf. Dubai is set to overtake Heathrow as the largest airport by international passengers by 2015, primarily because it is home to Emirates Airline, the fast-growing long-haul carrier.
Heathrow has stressed it will be able to compete more effectively with Dubai and rival European hubs if it has a third runway.
The UK’s largest airport claims it is the only one capable of supporting flights to a broad range of destinations in emerging markets that could fuel the economic recovery.
This is because about 30 per cent of Heathrow’s passengers are using the hub to transfer from one flight to another – enabling airlines to fill up their aircraft and run profitable routes to long-haul destinations. Less than 10 per cent of Gatwick’s passengers transfer between flights.
Colin Matthews, Heathrow’s chief executive, said in August that Gatwick could “be my guest” and have a second runway. But he added: “[Gatwick’s second runway] will not substitute for what airlines need at Heathrow – namely hub capacity.” Heathrow said on Wednesday it had no problem with Gatwick expanding at the same time as it did.
In October, Sir Howard questioned whether the UK needed a mega-hub such as the four-runway airport proposed by Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, for the Thames estuary. He also noted that some of the fast-growing low-cost carriers, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, were diversifying into long-haul routes.
Although he stressed the commission had reached no decisions, Sir Howard suggested it might be enough to add one more runway at Heathrow to enable it to support new long-haul routes. But he went on to say there could also be a case for allowing Gatwick to add a second runway – possibly sometime after Heathrow expanded – to support further growth by low-cost carriers.
The Airports Commission’s interim report next week is its first substantial piece of work in what is a long process. Its final recommendations on where to add runway capacity is not due until after the 2015 general election.
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