Business and airline leaders have outlined their dismay at further delays to the UK government's decision on where to build future runway capacity for London.
The UK government had been expected to make a decision on future runway capacity for the south-east by the end of the year following the long-awaited recommendation from the Airports Commission to build a third runway at London Heathrow.
But while accepting the Airports Commission's findings that new capacity is needed, the government has pushed a final decision on the location back until at least summer 2016 pending more work on the environmental implications.
It means all three expansion options shortlisted by the Commission - which also include a new runway at London Gatwick and expanding Heathrow's northern runway - remain on the table.
Gatwick's operator and the Heathrow Hub teams have unsurprisingly welcomed the race being kept open, arguing that the government's feeling further work is needed validates arguments that their expansion proposals are more realistic.
Heathrow Airport, the hub's manager, has adopted a publicly supportive tone, describing the delay as part of the process, and pointing to the Commission's "unanimous and unambiguous" endorsement for a third runway at Heathrow. It adds it remains confident it can meet the environmental goals.
But other supporters of airport expansion, concerned about London's losing its competitiveness, have vented frustration at yet another delay. They point to the two-and-a-half years UK prime minister David Cameron already granted to consider the decision after establishing the Airports Commission.
"Having already spent three years and millions of pounds of tax-payer money looking at the issue in a Commission, including extensive analysis on the economic and environmental impact, this further delay is unacceptable," says Gavin Hayes, director of the Let Britain Fly campaign.
The campaign had written to Cameron earlier this month urging him to make a clear decision on expanding Heathrow, a letter co-signed by high-profile union and business group leaders. “The business community will be rightly angered by the latest delay in a final decision to implement the Airports Commission’s recommendation to expand Heathrow," says Hayes.
This view is echoed by Carolyn Fairbairn of the UK business representation group CBI. “Delaying this decision on an issue of critical importance to the future prosperity of the UK is deeply disappointing. We urgently need to increase our runway capacity to spur trade growth, investment and job creation. Just eight new routes to emerging markets could boost our exports by up to £1 billion a year."
Pointing to the work already carried out by the Airports Commission, she says: "We cannot fall into the habit of simply commissioning new evidence, instead of the government taking the tough decisions needed at the end of the process.”
International airlines serving the UK, many of which would like the opportunity to expand at Heathrow, have also slammed the delay. Airline group BAR UK's chief executive, Dale Keller, says the Commission spent almost three years and £20 million to produce "the most detailed independent report of its type".
"It therefore seems inconceivable that the government has had insufficient time, or a lack of information, to make the decision it long promised," he says.
“The world’s airlines need certainty to invest in the UK and we urge the government to urgently come to a decision, since every week that passes has a direct cost to the UK economy, its international connectivity and reputation."
Runway expansion in the south-east has long been hugely political and that dimension continues to provide a backdrop to the decision. Cameron's own stance, following his "no ifs, no buts" pre-election pledge not to expand Heathrow, plays alongside a split position within the government.
Many Conservative MPs have urged the government to press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow, while high-profile figures - notably London mayor Boris Johnson and Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith - oppose expansion, leading to accusations that the government is delaying the issue until after the mayoral elections in May.
"Instead of showing strong leadership the prime minister has yet again decided to put short-term political interests before the long-term national interest and kicked the can down the road for another six months," says Hayes. "This latest fudge is all about political expediency, not about doing what is right for our economy."
The chief of IAG, which owns Heathrow's largest operator British Airways, also points to a political element to the delay. "To further delay a decision shows what we have repeatedly said: that party politics takes precedence over what is best for the economy," says Willie Walsh.
Speaking on BBC radio today, UK transport minister Patrick McLoughlin dismissed suggestions that delaying the decision until after the London mayoral elections was politically motivated.
He also insisted progress had been made, despite the delay, following the narrowing of options to three. "I think we have made some important movements already. We have accepted what [the Commission] says about the need for additional capacity in the south-east and we have said we will come to a decision on that over the summer.
"We have come to the conclusion that extra capacity is needed by either Gatwick having an additional runway or by the two options that are there for Heathrow."
He also insists a summer decision would enable it still to meet the timetable set out by the Commission. "The summer of next year would still allow us to get the extra capacity we need by 2030 which is what the [Commission] said was also necessary," says McLoughlin.
Successive UK governments have pondered the thorny issue of additional runway capacity for London. The then-Labour government approved a third runway plan in 2009 but this was dropped in 2010 by the Cameron-led coalition government, which ultimately moved a decision into 2015 when it launched the Airports Commission.
IAG's Walsh had previously called on the Labour government, while serving as British Airways' boss in 2006, to move ahead on plans for a third runway, which would have opened this year. He has since become increasingly resigned to a lack of political consensus to deliver a third runway at Heathrow, questioning its chances of being delivered even after the Commission backed the scheme.
Walsh is also raising concerns about the proposed cost of a third runway which, he believes, would be borne largely by IAG operators. “If a runway is built at Heathrow, there must be a fundamental review of the costs. Only around 1% of the £17.6 billion is for the actual runway and more than £800 million is for a new car park," he says. "If Britain is to develop new infrastructure, it should be efficient and cost-effective.”
Source: Cirium Dashboard