Gatwick‘s bid to rival Heathrow as a gateway to important long-haul destinations has been dealt a blow as Air China prepares to scrap its direct flights from the Sussex airport this winter.
Air China is pulling its services between Gatwick and Beijing from next month, although it will continue to operate out of Heathrow.
The decision has been seized on by critics of Gatwick’s plans for a “constellation” of two-runway airports to serve London’s future aviation needs. Opponents argue that Air China’s decision is proof that only a hub airport can sustain year-round routes to destinations in fast-growing emerging markets as airlines are able to use the transfer traffic to fill the flights.
“London and the UK economy need a proper, well-functioning hub airport with room for growth,” said Daniel Moylan, London Mayor Boris Johnson’s aviation adviser. “No amount of pretending that is not so is going to give Britain the sort of infrastructure it needs.”
Gatwick has lost 15 long-haul carriers since 2008, including Korean Air, Hong Kong Airlines, Air Asia X and Air Nigeria, but the airport stresses it has also added others such as Vietnam Airlines, Gambia Bird and Caribbean Airlines since the airport changed ownership in 2009. Moreover, Air China expects to resume summer services to Beijing next year, Gatwick said.
Read more about the Drama at London Heathrow
“Air China has made a decision not to operate services between London Gatwick and Beijing this winter,” the airport said in a statement. “Passenger numbers on the Gatwick-Beijing route have been strong since it was launched in May 2012.
However, over this summer Air China increased the capacity on its aircraft operating out of Heathrow and this has prompted the decision to temporarily withdraw services from Gatwick for the winter season.
“Air China intends to operate this route again out of Gatwick from next summer and we shall be working hard to return it to a year-round service.”
Gatwick has campaigned aggressively against expansion at Heathrow. The airport has told a commission investigating Britain’s aviation capacity crisis that a network of three two-runway airports would provide enough international connections for the UK and be the most affordable solution to the problem.
Gatwick believes it could build a second runway for as little as £5bn, substantially less than the £14bn to £18bn estimate for expanding Heathrow.
Gatwick is also pressing the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to change the way it is regulated and allow it to strike commercial contracts directly with airlines to attract more carriers.
The board of the CAA will meet this week to agree how much Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted should be allowed to charge airlines between 2014 and 2019.
The latest recommendations will not be made public until early next month, but this week’s meeting will be particularly crucial for Heathrow, which says the level of return the regulator has so far indicated it will allow will make it uncompetitive compared with other forms of infrastructure investment.