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Howard Commission sets out its views

You may already know that the Chamber chose to support Heathrow Airport in their bid for the additional runaway capacity that is needed around London.

The Howard Davies Commission has taken three years to review the issues, received over 70,000 submissions from consultees and has now published its 342 page report.  There is unanimous support amongst the commissioners for the North West Runway at Heathrow. 

I should say that we don’t feel any sense of triumph or self- satisfaction from this recommendation.  We chose Heathrow for reasons very specific to the business needs of Glasgow Chamber members. We would like to see Gatwick grow too. It’s a well -run business with ambitious plans and we were pleased to welcome CEO Stewart Wingate to Glasgow to make Gatwick’s case. We welcomed Colin Matthews too when he was CEO of Heathrow.

But there are several arguments which the Howard Commission report makes that reflect the views we took. 

Heathrow’s current dominance of long-haul flights is one. 

Heathrow has 70% of the UK’s long-haul connections. It is the airport which gives us the greatest access to the widest range of long haul options.  We care about that because our engineering, life science and whisky industries all need to get to markets all across the globe. Indeed it’s the fact that Heathrow has been unable to accommodate many new flights to cities in Asia, South America and Africa that makes us so keen to see the Third Runway built.

But I was asked on the BBC why Gatwick couldn’t do the same job in due course.  The Howard Commission gave some reasons why.  At the moment Gatwick is dominated by short haul flights to European destinations with a much smaller range of long haul options. To grow those long haul options, Howard says, would need one of the main airline alliances to move from Heathrow or for the low cost carriers at Gatwick which concentrate on short haul to shift into long haul flights.  As Howard says, there is no guarantee of that happening. 

The major airline alliances crucially including the alliance of which British Airways is a member, rejected suggestions they would move. The logistical support for their operations is all at Heathrow.  Neither are low cost carriers showing clear appetite for strong moves into long haul flights.  So for the foreseeable future Heathrow can be expected to remain the dominant provider of long haul flights and Howard argues that the Third Runway at Heathrow would offer much faster growth in new long haul destinations than Gatwick.

Would Heathrow offer more domestic connections so that we can regain some of the remaining ground we lost when Bmi withdrew in 2009?  Howard suggests that the Government should be looking at the use of Public Service Obligation rules that allow for the protection of slots for domestic connections but it’s not clear that this could apply to an airport as large as Glasgow. That’s for further investigation though. 

It wasn’t clear that choosing Gatwick would have made any difference to that issue since it was a telling point Howard made that the drop in domestic connections to Gatwick in recent years has been almost as large as at Heathrow.  We do need to continue pressing for more access to a new runway at Heathrow though and will review what Howard said on this much more closely in the weeks ahead.

Another interesting point that Howard makes relates to high speed rail.  HS2 is currently planned to have a connection to Heathrow. There is no plan for a connection to Gatwick.  Now I know that the argument over connecting high speed rail to Scotland is yet to be completed but if we assume it finally gets the green light then a connection to the hub airport is an important issue.  We know that the frequency of flights we currently have from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Heathrow depends as much on those whose final destination is London as it does on those who are flying onwards around the world using long haul flights.  When high speed rail eventually happens the evidence suggests that much of the current London demand would shift from air to rail.  Having the high speed connection to Heathrow becomes very important if we are to maintain an easy and frequent link to its long haul schedules.

The Gatwick team made a forceful argument that Heathrow was a bad choice simply because it would never be allowed to happen.  We know full well that senior Conservative politicians including Boris Johnson have vigorously opposed the project. But we have always said that we would make our case on the economic issues and let the politicians deal with the political issues.  Now Howard has made it clear that the economic case supports Heathrow. It is over to the politicians to decide quickly and deliver.

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