Despite giving its unequivocal backing for a third runway at London Heathrow, the Airports Commission appears to have failed to put an end the airport expansion debate in the UK.

Given the lengthy debate and stalled progress in resolving how to tackle the UK's future runway capacity needs, that will come as little surprise to many.

Even as the commission delivered its final report on 1 July, concluding that Heathrow should be allowed to expand - albeit with the caveats of a night flight ban the ruling out of fourth runway - Gatwick’s chief executive Stewart Wingate refused to concede, insisting the south London airport was still "very much in the race".

No doubt taking heart from the government's rather ambiguous message that it plans to examine the report’s conclusions and then issue its reaction by the end of the year, Gatwick has published its own critique of the report, describing its methodology as "flawed" and questioning several of the assumption made by the Howard Davies-led commission. Gatwick has also renewed its campaign to win public and political backing for a second runway.

"We continue to make the case for our second runway because we truly believe it is the best and most deliverable option," chief commercial officer, Guy Stevenson tells Flightglobal.

"Leaving aside the Airport Commission’s recommendation, our case is for a faster, cheaper, simpler, cleaner, more deliverable solution to the UK’s capacity needs and we believe our scheme not only delivers what the UK needs in terms of economic development but also global connectivity.

"Since the Airports Commission’s report was published, we have been maintaining our public profile, through our campaign, but also dissecting what we thought was an incorrect assessment in the Commission’s report about the basics of our case.

"For example - when you look at the growth assumptions at the airport - we will actually handle close to 41 million passengers this year. The Commission said, however, that we wouldn’t be doing that until the middle of the next decade – they are 10 years out," he says.

Olivier Jankovec, director general of airport trade body ACI Europe, believes the debate is shifting. "It is something Gatwick has been trying to do, to shift the debate to actual delivery rather than comparing the merits of the impact of one or the other solution.

"So again with the debate shifting more towards delivery, the debate is becoming more political. But in a way that is unavoidable because at the end of the day it is always going to be a political decision".

Indeed for Paul Kehoe, chief executive of Birmingham airport, the political dimension of the decision could prove to be a major hurdle for Heathrow's expansion plans.

"With a government that probably doesn’t want to deliver a third runway – ‘no ifs no buts no third runway’ said [David] Cameron. The chancellor probably does [want to expand Heathrow] but you’ve got: Boris Johnson – no Heathrow; the shadow chancellor John McDonnell – no Heathrow; [Jeremy] Corbyn – anti-Heathrow; Sadiq Khan, mayoral candidate – no Heathrow third runway; and the Tory mayoral candidate – no Heathrow," he says.

"It is a really tough call and more importantly [IAG chief executive] Willie Walsh has said: ‘I am not going to pay for it.’," he adds.

Walsh, whose IAG group includes Heathrow's biggest operator British Airways, has raised concerns over the cost of all the three London expansion options, believing these will lead to increased landing fees.

Nevertheless, Heathrow remains upbeat about its chances of securing a third runway. Andrew Macmillan Heathrow’s director of strategy says the Airports Commission had been "absolutely clear and unambiguous" in its support for Heathrow's expansion and has produced a "well-articulated" final report, adding that "this is a once in generation opportunity [for Heathrow] to become a 21st century airport".

Macmillan says that with the aid of a government development consent order, planning permission for the new runway could be gained within the next three to four years and could be operational as soon as 2025.

A critical battleground has emerged around the levels of pollution, both noise and emissions, around both Gatwick and Heathrow.

Macmillan says the "vast majority" of NoX emissions at Heathrow come from motor vehicles and says progress is being made to reduce the number of private vehicles and increase passenger usage of public transport, a process he believes will be accelerated once Crossrail is operational.

Without going into the thorny issue of financing of the scheme, the airport executive notes that Heathrow has traditionally raised private investment for the £11-12 billion it has spent over the last decade on infrastructure projects by issuing bonds in the open market, and Macmillan says he is “very confident we can raise the money” needed for the estimated £14-18 billion ($18-21 billion) third runway.


A possible alternative to Heathrow’s future development could come from an unexpected source in the form of Dublin airport.

Traffic has rebounded at the Irish capital after the heavy falls that followed the economic crisis, as Aer Lingus has rebuilt its long-haul and short-haul business from the gateway and from Ryanair's return to growth from Dubalin after Ireland scrapped its travel tax.

But it is IAG’s tie up with Dublin-based Aer Lingus that might open up new opportunities for the airport. "A lot of the IAG discussion and plan is about growing Aer Lingus and in particular enabling it to continue the growth plans that it had but with a much more firm financial footing that the group will provide," says Dublin Airport managing director Vincent Harrison.

"Obviously also against the backdrop of a lot of airport congestion in the UK gives us a lot of opportunity for continuing to grow that connecting base".

A return to traffic growth - passenger numbers are almost back to pre-financial crisis levels - means a second runway is now back on the agenda at Dublin. Airport operator DAA is currently "examining the various options" regarding the delivery of a second parallel runway at Dublin airport.

"We have had a second runway on the planning horizon for decades," says Harrison, adding: "Dublin has had the land safeguarded and has had the outline plans in place to construct a runway in the same location for many, many years and that’s also enabled us to have a general planning environment where there aren’t many residential areas or the sort of urban build up around the airport that you see in other cities".

Harrison says that in recent years the airport has been "focused very much on our connecting passengers through Dublin, in particular with Aer Lingus and working together to demonstrate a connecting product". The airport’s US pre-clearance facility, which allows departing passengers to clear customs before arrival, has also been a major boon for this strategy, he adds.

The case for a second runway could be made more compelling by the IAG-Aer Lingus tie up. Walsh has stated that Ireland is a "very attractive market, not just point-to-point, but across connections with [our] Latin network and transatlantic," and says there are opportunities for IAG to connect more passengers through the Irish gateway.

The airport boss says that footing the bill is "never going to be as simple as a question of airlines financing a runway or not" and notes that Ireland has an "established regulatory model in place" for funding such a project.

DAA chief executive Kevin Toland is more explicit about the advantages of expanding Dublin rather than an airport in the UK. "I think it is fair to say that it’s a very different mathematical equation than a UK runway, it’s a fraction of the cost. It’s a very different not wanting to pay out £8 to £10 billion in the UK to the sort of magnitude we have in Ireland," he says.

For ACI Europe's Jankovec the critical question now is whether the UK government has the "political courage" to make a decision and end the debate.

"The process in the UK over the last 20 years has been a failure. That’s clear," he says. "Now they came up with yet another process with the Airports Commission and that new process was meant to come to a decision. It is of course up to the government to decide and I just hope a decision is taken because the worst [scenario] would be not having any decision.

"So it’s a test in terms of ability of a government to deliver the long-term vision for the UK…it is a test in terms of the political courage of the government."

Source: Cirium Dashboard