Tug of War: Heathrow and Gatwick

Anupurba Roy

It is an odd contradiction that London’s Heathrow Airport, which is one of the busiest in the world, is also one of the smallest. In terms of area Heathrow ranks 25th in the world, far behind airports with significantly lesser traffic. The airport has been operating at full capacity for years. Simmilarly, London’s Gatwick airport also operates at near full capacity, and is predicted to reach full capacity by 2020.

There is no doubt that an expansion is needed. Plans for an expansion have been debated over for years, but politicians have been dragging their feet. This year, Sir Howard Davies of the Airports Commission is slated to submit the report of a national public consultation which will end on February 3rd. The Commission is to announce its final decision after the General Election.

An expansion of either airport would lead to economic growth through job creation and both airports have seen growth in passenger numbers this year. On the face of it, a new runway at Heathrow seems economically advantageous. Heathrow is at full capacity, there is a high demand for take-off and landing slots at the airport which have prices from £25-30 million. 37% of travellers at the airport use it to transfer flights, and about 33% of travellers are business travellers, as opposed to Gatwick’s 7%. Building an extra runway at Heathrow is also projected to boost economic growth by £214 billion.

However, the issue is highly controversial. ‘NIMBY-ism’ or the ‘Not In My Backyard’ attitude of West London residents is a major hurdle to Heathrow’s expansion. Residents complain of noise and motorway congestion. The area also represents a marginal constituency, and politicians are wary of upsetting potential voters.

Supporters of the ‘Gatwick Obviously’ campaign claim that their plans can be delivered at a lower cost, more swiftly and with far less impact on the environment. One of Gatwick’s main points of argument is that the patterns of air travel are changing. The availability of smaller aircraft such as Boeing 787s for long haul international travel and the rise of budget airlines, may negate the need for large hubs like Heathrow. However the veracity of this claim remains debatable. Just today (30th January), low cost carrier EasyJet openly expressed its support for a Heathrow expansion, listing increased airport charges at Gatwick as one of the main reasons for its decision.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Britain needs to act fast. Dubai is fast overtaking Heathrow as a hub for international air travel. Traffic from passengers flying outside Dubai at Dubai International Airport rose to 69.9m compared to Heathrow’s 68.1m according to Airports Council International. The only saving grace is that it remains behind Heathrow’s overall traffic (including international and domestic travel) at 70.5 million, compared to Heathrow’s 73.4 million. The airport expects passenger growth of 90 million in the next year, and fears that it may replace Europe as a link between Asia and North America may not be unfounded for long.