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Airports Commission - why we are backing Heathrow

We have just submitted our thoughts to the Davies Commission on the review of airport capacity in the South East of England.  At the Chamber’s most recent meeting of our Council of Directors a decision was taken to support the proposal for expansion of Heathrow.

Now I know that there are many members who choose to avoid using Heathrow because it can be a difficult travelling experience and for sure our first preference is for a steady expansion of direct flights from Glasgow Airport.  Amanda McMillan and her team have been achieving exactly that, with the hugely successful Emirates double daily to Dubai being the most important. 

Halifax, Munich, Prague, Bordeaux are all new destinations secured in 2014, with a total of 20 new routes.  That means Glasgow Airport now serves 110 destinations with 30 airlines and the passenger numbers reached 7.7 million, the highest since 2008.

But no matter how many new routes Glasgow secures there will always be limitations. Central Belt Scotland simply doesn’t have enough people to support flights to all the destinations we need to reach to do business.  But given that at least two of our key sectors - engineering and whisky - trade with markets in every corner of the world, we will always need to have effective access to a major hub airport. Heathrow might just have lost its crown as the world’s biggest airport to Dubai, but it remains by far the UK’s only genuine hub – and that is the most obvious point that sways the Chamber’s view towards expanding Heathrow.

There is no doubt that much of the concern about the service at Heathrow is because it is operating at as near capacity as an airport can possibly do.  Heathrow is Glasgow Airport’s most popular destination and three times more passengers hub onwards from Heathrow than from Gatwick. 

The OneWorld Alliance provides 120 onward destinations from Heathrow, again three times more than is available at Gatwick.  You can get to 75 destinations from Heathrow that no other UK airport provides, and an additional runway would add anything up to 40 new long haul destinations. 

As the relentless growth of Dubai is showing, the concentration of available destinations in one place remains an attractive offer. Choosing Gatwick for expansion and splitting the UK’s hub between two airports raises lots of questions about the additional frequency of flights we would need to both airports to make the scheduling of onward connections work for our business community.

Two of the arguments from Gatwick that were put to us by that airport’s chief executive rather reinforced our concerns.

Firstly he said that the era of hubbing was edging away as technological improvements in planes made it more economical to fly direct.  Now we are not experts in that field, but we have not yet seen real signs of ‘hub buster’ aircraft changing the industry dynamics in Scotland. We expect to have to rely on hub airport connections for many more years to come.   The ‘hub buster’ argument rather confirms our view that Gatwick itself is never likely to be a major world hub in any circumstances.

Secondly, we were told that Heathrow is not politically deliverable whilst Gatwick is.  Now it could turn out that this is true, and the concern about marginal seats in the Heathrow area may be the reason of course why Davies is not reporting until after the May General Election.  But it is not for us in this debate to assess the political practicalities. It is for us to say what ideally we would like to see happen – direct flights first,  then, failing that,  frequent access to the world’s second biggest hub airport with a growing list of destinations on offer.  That is Heathrow.

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