If we are to win in the global race for jobs and growth, additional hub capacity must be prioritised over point-to-point, where there will slack in the system for another 25 years.
Last week, the Government reasserted its commitment to double UK exports by 2020, a bold ambition. The eurozone accounts for nearly half of UK’s trade, but Europe’s contribution to global growth is diminishing. To meet its potential, Britain needs to be connected with the regions where growth is surging ahead – and that means emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and North America.
During my time as chief executive officer of a global hub airport, our business has been at the centre of a high-profile, and sometimes polarising debate about how the aviation industry can help the UK to achieve its objectives. The stakes are high – forthcoming research by Frontier Economics shows that if Heathrow were to expand, it could add 40 long-haul direct new routes that businesses need to reach rapidly-growing economies such as those of Calcutta, Lima and Mombasa.
Instead, Heathrow has been full for a decade and those routes are being handed to our hub rivals in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Previous analysis shows our economy is missing out on £14bn a year in lost trade as a result, a figure that’s set to rise to £26bn by 2030.
Yet the debate cannot move forward while it hinges around a false choice: Heathrow or Gatwick.
The two are not comparable – Heathrow is the UK’s only hub airport. Pooling transfer passengers from across Europe smooths out the peaks and troughs in daily demand, making profitable long-haul flights to destinations that cannot survive on local demand alone.
These flights are important for Britain’s economic growth. They support trade, bring tourists to our city, and allow London’s cosmopolitan population to visit friends and family around the globe. They also support the global movement of goods – 64pc of all UK air freight flies out of Heathrow, 60 times more than Gatwick.
Point-to-point airports such as London City, Stansted and Gatwick serve a vital and different market. They provide mostly short-haul and leisure flights. Without transfer traffic, few regular direct long-haul connections are viable, especially to emerging growing markets.
The Airports Commission says there is spare point-to-point capacity until 2040. Having a successful hub and successful point-to-points has served consumers and businesses well, with each airport meeting the specific needs of its customer airlines and passengers. As a result, passengers have more options for competitively priced flights.
That’s why Heathrow is not opposed to a second runway at Gatwick. The greatest benefit to consumers comes from allowing passengers and airlines to be free to choose where to fly from without a lack of capacity getting in the way.
But in the decade that Heathrow has been full, new airline entrants have not chosen to fly out of point-to-point airports with spare capacity. Some, such as Colombian carrier Avianca, have been prepared to wait up to eight years for a slot to become available at Heathrow.
Others have taken their business, and the trade that goes with it, abroad. Dubai recently announced that for the first time it has overtaken Heathrow as the world’s number one airport for international passengers in a two-month period.
It’s the beginning of the end of 350 years in which Britain has been home to the world’s largest port or airport, and a stark reminder that if we are to win in the global race for jobs and growth, additional hub capacity must be prioritised over point-to-point, where there will slack in the system for another 25 years.
The private sector stands ready to invest in the infrastructure that Britain needs. Politicians have it within their power to make a clear decision to support new runways and end the years of delay and prevarication that restrict consumer choice and choke opportunities for trade. The crunch point has come. Growth won’t wait.
I hope and believe that this time the right call will be made for the whole of Britain.
Colin Matthews is chief executive of Heathrow Airport