Scotland’s independence referendum last year will have left no one in any doubt about the independence of mind and spirit that exists north of the border. Yet the vigorous and healthy debate which accompanied it also highlighted what Scotland shares with the rest of the UK, such as its currency, research funding and the BBC.
One area where Scotland has a beneficial relationship with its near neighbours is air travel. While Heathrow may be based in the South East of England, its status as the UK’s only hub airport means it plays a vital role in connecting Scotland to the rest of the world. Indeed, 2.45 million people fly through Heathrow and into Scotland every year. As VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay recently told the Scotsman: “While Scotland now benefits from many direct flights, airports such as Heathrow serve as important hubs for hundreds of thousands of our overseas visitors”.
This is why the upcoming decision from the Airports Commission on flight capacity is just as relevant to the Scots as it is to those in the South East of England. Over 30 chambers of commerce around the UK are now backing Heathrow expansion for the benefits it will bring in terms of jobs and economic growth, and these include the Aberdeen and Grampian, Glasgow and Inverness chambers, as well as the nationwide Scottish Chambers of Commerce umbrella group.
In its submission to the recent Airports Commission consultation, the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce pointed out that two-fifths of the 870,000 passengers flying from Glasgow Airport to Heathrow each year are heading onwards overseas, and that Heathrow offers 75 destinations that are not served by any other UK airport. It knows that accessible air travel is vital both for Glasgow-based businesses trading overseas and for foreign investors looking to do business in the region.
Aberdeen, meanwhile, has the highest proportion of business travellers in Scotland, with over a quarter of Scottish flights to Heathrow departing from Aberdeen International. Yet a number of services to London have been withdrawn in recent years and these passengers are keen to see their resumption. The Highlands have encountered similar challenges, and that is why the Inverness Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive Stewart Nicol recently argued that the reintroduction of direct flights to Heathrow “would lead to a significant and immediate boost” to the region’s economic performance.
The effect that improved air connectivity will have upon both economic output and levels of employment across the UK regions was quantified for the first time last month by the planning consultancy Quod. Using Airports Commission data, its projections found that Heathrow expansion would add £14bn to Scotland’s real GDP between 2019 and 2078, and create 16,100 new jobs by 2050.
Meanwhile, increasing the number of routes available between Heathrow and Scotland is also expected to have a significant impact on ticket fares for passengers. A report by Frontier Economics last year calculated that if Heathrow were expanded today, the average return ticket price would be reduced by £95. By 2030, this reduction could be as much £320 due to the increasing impact that not raising capacity would have. Not only would fares fall due to the reduction in excess demand for seats, but increased competition between airlines serving similar routes would bring financial benefits for passengers.
With the Airports Commission preparing to make its final decision this summer, awareness is growing of the huge benefits that expansion of Heathrow will have across the country. It’s not just London and the South East of England that are set to reap the rewards, but Scotland and the rest of the UK too.