Much is already changing in air travel. Low cost carriers continue to gain market share, orders for new long distance, hub-busting aircraft are increasing, and new hubs in the Middle East and Far East are growing rapidly – all of which reduce the relative importance of traditional transfer traffic through London. We have also seen a transformation within London itself. The three largest airports are now separately owned and have begun to compete. This is a real game-changer.
Despite this, we are still told that it is only growth at our largest airport that matters. But London is a world city and destination in its own right: 87 per cent of passengers begin or end their journey here. It’s not a city people pass through. Only 13 per cent of passengers make up the transfer journeys we hear so much about. This proportion is likely to increase in the coming years, which means that despite what the proponents of creating a ‘mega hub’ at Heathrow or in the Thames Estuary might say, the importance of hub passengers in London is exaggerated.
Policy should be framed around the travel needs of all passengers and not dictated solely by those who only want to change planes in London. Transfer passengers are important but they are in the minority. As the Airports Commission looks at the options, it will need to ensure that any recommended solution is deliverable, environmentally sustainable, and has a strong business case behind it. A degree of political consensus is also key, as is the need to deliver certainty to airlines, businesses and communities.
Our vision for a two runway Gatwick, as part of a constellation of three major airports surrounding London, is affordable, deliverable, sustainable and promotes competition for the benefit of passengers.
We believe a constellation model provides a better strategic fit for London and for the UK. It could be delivered at a fraction of the cost of a new airport in the Thames Estuary and would generate significantly less noise than a third runway at Heathrow. It will also be the most beneficial option for passengers, allowing competition between airports, better connections and affordability. Twenty two of the world’s 40 busiest cities for air travel successfully employ this model and have more than one airport serving their needs.
Building the next runway at Gatwick would not only solve the capacity issue for a generation but allow us to collectively offer a greater selection of destinations to passengers. We have already invested over £1bn since the change of ownership in 2009. We’ve opened new direct routes to some of the fastest growing economies such as China, Russia and Vietnam. More competition will deliver the enhanced connectivity the UK economy needs. Where there is passenger demand, the market should be able to respond.
So far, the needs of passengers have been largely lost in the aviation debate. I believe they should be able to choose where to fly, when to fly, and who to fly with. In the longer term, capacity has to be matched to the passenger need. They want better value fares, new destinations, higher quality airports and more convenient door-to-door journeys every time they travel. Our option will deliver these benefits by creating multiple layers of choice for passengers.
Crucially though, noise impacts will be substantially lower than for Heathrow’s plans. A two runway Gatwick will affect fewer than 5 per cent of the people Heathrow impacts today. And unlike Heathrow, we will not breach European and national air quality standards.
The Airports Commission has provided us with a unique opportunity to look to the future and develop a strategy which will benefit the UK for decades to come. Gatwick expansion will cost between £5bn and £9bn – a fraction of the cost of expansion at Heathrow – and a second runway can be open by 2025. Our runway plans are currently backed by local authorities and business groups. With the right political will, our vision is not only possible but the best.
Stewart Wingate is chief executive of Gatwick Airport