Comment: Heathrow expansion is just a sticking plaster solution

By Syed Kamall

I was disappointed when Sir Howard Davies recommended in his much anticipated Davies report, that the solution to London's increasing need for air transport is to build a third runway at Heathrow. This is, in my view, a sticking plaster solution for the short term.

According to figures published last month in the Global Destination Cities Index, London is once again the number one city to visit in the world. The report claims something like 18.82 million international visitors will visit London during 2015, which puts us ahead of Paris, Singapore and even Dubai.

The question is, do we have the aviation capacity to maintain this increase in tourism as well as cater for business travel as entrepreneurs increase their trade with existing and emerging global markets?

Perhaps, we have lessons to learn from the rest of the world. China is leading the way in the construction of airports having spent $3.5 Billion, less than a decade ago on what was at the time the largest passenger terminal in the world. Just last year the Chinese Government gave the go-ahead to a new $13.1 Billion terminal, which will be built by 2018 and will handle around 45 million passengers a year. It is expected by 2020 China will have built 40 new airports. On top of this new airports to which UK leisure and business traveller will seek access are being built in India and other growing markets.  Yet here in London, we again suggest expanding Heathrow in a half-hearted attempt to increase airport traffic to meet our increased demand and to make sure London has trade links with international powerhouses like China and India.

What then? When the third runway isn't enough?  If the Davies report was serious about meeting long term demand, why then has it suggested ruling out a fourth runway unless he is aware of broken promises from Heathrow in the past. I recall that when Terminal 4 opened, Heathrow promised that there would be no more expansion, then a few years later Terminal 5 appeared. Let's not pretend that there will not be pressure to expand further once the third runway is built. Expansion by false promises is not only dishonest but lacking vision.

We shouldn’t be planning for the next five years; we need to think more long-term when it comes to aviation. We need to be thinking about the next 50 years and we need to ensure that those doing business in places like Asia have ready access to air transportation and equally as important, thosewho wish to invest their money in London can get here quickly and efficiently too. This is why it is now time to be bold and visionary.

Heathrow will continue to have a place in the UK's aviation mix, but my preferred solution is to build a new airport for London to meet future demand with one caveat. Let's remember that forecasters are notorious for getting things wrong. Not long ago, it was predicted that small shops were dying and that the future demand was for large out of town hypermarkets.  The supermarket chains are now returning to the high street with smaller convenience stores. Some aviation experts believe that demand for flying via larger hub airports will decrease while there will be increased demand for more point to point flights, one reason Boeing decided to develop the smaller more fuel efficient 787 rather than extend the top deck of the 747 to compete with the double decker super jumbo Airbus 380.

If this is the more likely scenario, then expanding Heathrow is still not the solution, especially since the Davies Report only recommends Heathrow expansion if there are 'new measures to ensure acceptable air quality around the airport' which many environmental experts say is impossible to deliver.  We need to get on and build more capacity and if the government is adamant that it will not seek investors to build a new airport then expanding Gatwick might make more sense for political and environmental reasons with the hope that the government's plans to create a Northern and other regional powerhouses could reduce demand for flying via London in the long term.

If I am elected as London Mayor, I will call together potential investors and airlines to find a solution to meet long-term demand, not just sticking plaster solutions.

Syed Kamall MEP is the leader of the Conservatives on the European Parliament and is standing to become the party's candidate for London mayor.

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