As originally featured in this month’s Total Politics
Gatwick’s announcement regarding a second runway has widened the scope of Britain’s aviation debate. This had been trapped in a false binary argument between Boris’s pie-in-the-sky proposals for a Thames estuary airport and a third runway at Heathrow.
While Boris proposed a brand new Estuary Airport as the sole solution for aviation capacity, he missed the point that there are other options, including a second runway at Gatwick, which could provide a valuable contribution to Britain’s aviation capacity. His spokesman seemed unaware of any irony in saying that ‘there is absolutely no point in simply scattering new runways randomly around the south-east’, when Boris himself continually seems to endorse new ways of scattering floating runways or whole airports around the Thames Estuary.
Since Gatwick was sold by BAA, it has undertaken a series of enhancements which have improved customer service and attracted new airlines from a variety of emerging markets. This expansion has already provided Britain with new trade routes to Asia. These improvements show how it could be viable for Gatwick, with an extra runway, to become a second London hub airport, competing – including on price – with Heathrow.
Gatwick currently operates with close to 10 per cent of its passengers connecting to another flight, compared to nearer 30 per cent at Heathrow, and is for now better placed than any other UK airport to develop as a real competitor to Heathrow. Competing hubs could improve service and even drive down ticket prices as the airports compete for customers and contracts. Heathrow could potentially focus on serving transatlantic routes, while Gatwick developed large numbers of new routes to Asia, with both airports operating dense European route networks.
Gatwick has already done significant preliminary consultation and opposition to Gatwick expansion could be less widespread and vociferous than for either Heathrow or a new airport in the Thames Estuary. Additional flight paths for Gatwick would disturb fewer people than at Heathrow and, unlike a Thames Estuary airport, would not intrude on Amsterdam Schiphol’s flight paths or put planes at high risk of bird strike.
The existing transport infrastructure from Gatwick to central London is reasonably good and Gatwick could easily have an improved and dedicated Gatwick Express Service, as well as good rail services to Kent. Infrastructure costs would be incomparably lower than the almost unimaginable levels of spending that would be needed to support a Thames Estuary airport.
Gatwick currently serves 197 destinations and 34 million passengers a year. It would be ridiculous not to take seriously the prospect of future expansion at Gatwick when it has long safeguarded space for a second runway, and now has the demand, capability and willingness to make use of it. What possible objection can Boris have to Gatwick spending its own investors’ money to provide yet greater connectivity for London and the UK?