17 Dec 2013

Gatwick: the dark horse for airport expansion

In the epic political battle between supporters of Heathrow expansion within the Conservative party and supporters of Boris/Foster Island, also within the Conservative party, the expansion plans for Gatwick have been largely overlooked.

But my take, after talking to Sir Howard Davies, reading the report, and having a general sniff around the industry, is that a second runway at Gatwick is the dark horse here.

Firstly, the economic lens. Today’s Davies commission report straightforwardly rebuffs the notion that the UK needs a megahub airport. The growth in air traffic in recent years has been in low-cost airlines, not so-called legacy airlines (see chart here).

More than that, all the countries with shiny new megahubs have done so on the basis of massive state funding and ownership of the airport sector. That is not the case here in Britain.

And there is a bigger point. The last attempt at aviation futurology a decade ago mentioned Dubai just once (set to be the world’s number one soon) and low-cost airlines barely at all. Gatwick argues that the growth of air travel is to the emerging east, and therefore continental Europe will not be using the UK as a hub, as it does when flying to the US.

The lack of a hub, may be a more resilient, pro competition, more flexible way of accommodating the unknowable future of aviation. Hubs are natural state-owned, state-run monopolies. That is not what we have in the UK.

Toxic Heathrow

Now the politics. Heathrow is toxic for the PM. He gave a “no ifs, no buts” promise not to expand Heathrow. Zac Goldsmith has promised to resign. And Conservative councils on the flight path have issued this noise map showing the contours, including posh west London suburbs of Chiswick and Kensington etc.

Heathrow itself says that the noise map for the north western runway three will be over far smaller an area, and further out into the Surrey countryside.

There are no easy decisions, even as the shortlist for an extra runway is cut to three, maybe four, options. But in a field between the villages of Sipson and Harmondsworth – now Heathrow airports preferred location for touchdown on a third runway – you start to see why attempts to expand Heathrow airport capacity are so toxic and consistently delayed.

So the Isle of Grain is an interesting prospect, given the politics. But it is itself essentially a political project. It is a decision to shift the economic geography of the south east of the UK from west to east. It is hugely disruptive, requiring the closure of both Heathrow and City Airport. It will need a high-speed rail spur from HS1.

On the other, the Heathrow site could become carpeted with housing connected to the centre of London by a high-speed line. But it is a massive decision, more expensive than HS2.

Sir Howard Davies was rather withering about this option, whilst officially promising to explore it more. He told me: “The mayor of London is quite sure he knows the answer. I’m not so sure. I don’t know why he is so sure”. As Iain Martin has argued, it would require Boris Johnson to become PM for it to be pursued.

Less upheaval, less hassle

So that does leave Gatwick as a compromise candidate. Less upheaval, less hassle, fewer protests, fewer promises broken, less expensive and more competition. And one should note that only a few days ago the government fast-tracked the funding for its brand-new train station. Is that station seriously just meant for the current single runway configuration? Apparently so.

The Davies commission, at face value, does seem to have accepted more of Gatwick’s arguments. Indeed, when I suggested that Heathrow was a done deal, Sir Howard corrected me. Ultimately, politicians have a long history of rejecting the advice of independent airport commissions. Gatwick does seem to have the benefit of being least offensive.

PS: When airport capacity visualisations become modern art. a chart from the Davies Commission report –