UK airport debate: Gatwick Airport argues for a different connectivity approach for the new runway


The only certainty about the decision making process for a new runway for southeast England is that one will be made, eventually. There is still no formal UK government position on the matter. But if a week in politics is a long time then the six months that might elapse between the recommendations of the Airport Commission (AC) in early Jul-2015, and their adoption or rejection before the end of the year, is a lifetime.

Many objections to what the AC said have been thrown up by organisations and individuals that have an interest in the matter and the decision will go to the wire. And even now there might not be a decision at all.

This report highlights the last minute efforts that are being made by Gatwick Airport – which lost out to Heathrow in the AC’s recommendations - to turn the tide in its favour.

Gatwick's technical argument, connectivity changes and political developments are shaping the outcome

Loosely, there are three strands to this – a ‘technical’ argument from Gatwick Airport; a new initiative to aid connectivity there (connectivity being at the heart of the AC’s deliberations); and major, game-changing political developments that have taken place in Oct-2015.

The Gatwick Airport management, fronted by CEO Stewart Wingate and Chairman Sir Roy McNulty strongly refuted the conclusions of Sir Howard Davies’s (SHD) 01-Jul-2015 report from the word go.

Regrettably matters have become heated at times, as they did previously between SHD and London Mayor Boris Johnson over his Thames Estuary airport proposal, but much is at stake. In the case of both Heathrow and Gatwick there are serious global funds involved which have committed to investment in either party on the basis that it can win this race. As CAPA has said before, failure is not an option in this vital decision.

Gatwick Airport quickly latched on to the issue of the economic and operational credibility of the case for a third runway at Heathrow and began to work with acknowledged independent experts – who had not previously been directly involved in the consultations – to draw up a rebuttal of the AC’s recommendation.

It was never going to be alone in this. Despite the fact that Heathrow Airport is confident it has the support of local business and of 50% or more of local inhabitants along the arrival and departure flight paths, there are powerful vested interests lined up against it.

As reported previously by CAPA, they include some senior members of the central government Cabinet (all of whom have been barred from taking part in the special committee set up by Prime Minister Cameron to examine the AC’s recommendations); the ubiquitous Mayor, as garrulous as ever and now able to play Devil’s Advocate as an MP for the London borough that is worst affected by Heathrow noise and other environmental issues; and other Conservative MPs, some of whom were candidates for the position of Mayor of London in the 2016 election, such as the Richmond MP and veteran anti-everything that flies campaigner, Zac Goldsmith, who was ultimately selected.

See also: London City Airport – for sale, but caught up in a political game

And none of this takes into account the activities of the long established lobby group HACAN, which organised a rally against Heathrow Airport expansion on 10-Oct-2015 in London’s Parliament Square. HACAN makes much of a Jul-2015 IPSOS MORI poll that reveals that of those respondents who agree with airport expansion in the UK, 24% say it should be at Gatwick rather than Heathrow.

As if the political position were not complex enough, during Sep-2015 the extraordinary election of a veteran and outright Socialist Parliamentary backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn, as Leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition to the government, and his appointment of a raft of similarly minded people to his Shadow Cabinet including the Shadow Chancellor, has destroyed any assumptions there might have been for Labour support for the government’s ultimate decision. Mr Corbyn came, literally, straight out of left field.

The Airports Commission’s three-year long study was intended to enable a degree of cross-party support for its recommendation to ferment. Under a Labour Party led by previous leader Ed Miliband that might have been possible, but no longer is that the case. Where Labour is concerned these are now totally un-navigated waters and all bets are off.

Gatwick Airport's technical rebuttal hangs on the practical realities of aviation

The main tenet of the paper Gatwick commissioned, from independent consultants CTAIRA, is that in a number of key areas the Commission’s Final Report’s conclusions fail to reflect how the global aviation market is developing and how the airline industry is already responding to these developments today. It has more to do with the practical reality of aviation than was evident in some parts of the Commission’s report.

This is not a unique approach. Indeed, during the preparation of, and after the publication of, the Commission’s Interim Report in Dec-2013 several organisations questioned some of the assumptions that it made about the future of the global aviation industry and its impact on the UK.

Numbered among them was Birmingham Airport, which has a great deal of spare capacity and which will be connected to London by a high speed rail line within the next decade or so. Birmingham’s submission was dismissed by the Commission at the Interim Report stage (not quite out-of-hand but with little credit given) and subsequently that airport began to work with Gatwick to present a joint opposition case to Heathrow as two of the airports most likely to be adversely affected by a decision in Heathrow’s favour.

Consultancy focuses on London’s passenger traffic being more O&D than transfer

CTAIRA argues that London is the largest aviation market in the world in its own right (which it is, by some 20 million ppa), not because of transfer traffic but because of London’s pre-eminent position as a global centre for commerce, politics, leisure and tourism and that it goes without saying that additional runway capacity provided in the London area must satisfy the needs and requirements of the future rather than meeting the needs of today.

The facts seem to support this proposition, with transfer traffic at the ‘hub’ airport Heathrow at around 36% of the total compared to 13% at the ‘O&D’ airport Gatwick. The latter figure is an increase from the 9% recorded during the airport’s ownership by the BAA. Only 14% of all traffic in the London system is transfer and this is estimated to be set to decline to 9% by 2050 due to a combination of geography, new generation aircraft, the outcomes of airline strategies and changed traveller behaviour.

It might also be argued that there are already seven commercial runways serving London, which is more than most cities of comparable size, it is just that they are randomly distributed across six airports rather than collected in one or two places. In that scenario, and assuming the case is made for an extra one, as the Commission did, it could be argued it would make more sense to place an additional runway in a location that is best representative of where growth is coming from momentarily – point-to-point leisure travel; or where the traffic mix is the most varied [thereby catering for emerging trends]; or allied to where it is most needed from an operational aspect. In two of those categories the answer is Gatwick. In the latter case it is a draw between Heathrow and Gatwick which are both at or close to capacity for much of the day.

CTAIRA’s position dissected

Firstly, the domestic/international capacity split is very similar at Gatwick to what it is at Heathrow. As the charts below show, international dominates, at 93-94% in both cases. It is how connections between domestic and international travel is handled that matter (UK ‘connectivity’ to the outside world and in that sense Gatwick has a recent initiative (see later).

London Gatwick Airport international vs. domestic seat capacity share (14-Sep-2015 to 20-Sep-2015)   

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London Heathrow Airport international vs. domestic seat capacity share (14-Sep-2015 to 20-Sep-2015)

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Secondly, Gatwick is a little less dominated by one carrier. British Airways (BA) has the greatest seat capacity (and slots) at Heathrow and holds a dominant position that it is loath to give up – as would probably be the case in the event of a third runway there. As a member of International Airlines Group (IAG), which includes Iberia and its Madrid hub, Vueling and its Barcelona hub, and now Aer Lingus and its Dublin hub, BA is far less concerned about capacity restrictions at its home base than it ought to be. Alternatively IAG has adopted a successful strategy of reducing BA's absolute reliance on Heathrow.

Furthermore it could in the future seek other airline/airport hub outlets such as Finnair/Helsinki Airport (Finnair being a member of the oneworld alliance that is led by BA and American Airlines already). Whether or not that advantageous position held by BA is conducive to the common good of ‘UK plc’ is of course much less obvious. (Note also that no other airline comes anywhere near BA’s LHR capacity).

In Gatwick’s case the ‘domination’ is not quite so pronounced. EasyJet, the largest carrier, has a similar proportion of capacity to that of BA at Heathrow but remains for now a point-to-point carrier and BA, which is adding capacity at Gatwick right now, including its first intercontinental service to Latin America (Lima), holds second place in the capacity league there anyway.

London Gatwick Airport capacity (seats per week), 14 to 20-Sep-2015

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London Heathrow Airport capacity (seats peer week), 14 to 20-Sep-2015

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Gatwick Airport has a broader spread of traffic

The distribution of traffic between airline types also seems to favour Gatwick, which has capacity that is considerably more broadly allocated.

London Gatwick Airport capacity share by carrier type, 14 to 20-Sep-2015

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London Heathrow Airport capacity share by carrier type, 14 to 20-Sep-2015

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Of course it could be argued that a third Heathrow runway would provide opportunities for low cost carriers and perhaps even charter airlines to use it. But with high charges being levied with no guarantee they will fall, and intense demand from full service/network/alliance carriers already operating there - let alone new ones - it is difficult to imagine them making much of an impact unless protection of slots for such carriers exceeded what is on offer already (i.e. protection of slots for UK regional services).

EasyJet, which has its largest base at Gatwick, indicated prior to the publication of the AC’s Final Report that it would shift some operations to Heathrow if and when a third runway opens; but Gatwick is now taking steps to retain that airline’s services as far as possible with the new connectivity offer that is outlined later in this report.

Finally, Gatwick can claim an advantage of sorts based on its lack of exposure to alliances. Only 18% of Gatwick’s seat capacity momentarily is accounted for by airline alliance activity, compared to 17.5% at Heathrow. Is this important?

Most of Gatwick’s growth is coming from long haul

That may be the case if there is merit in the argument that aviation will be influenced less in the future by the big branded global alliances and more by independent route by route or linear/radial system agreements that often by-pass existing primary gateways and hubs. In addition to short, mid and long-haul point-to-point services. Gatwick is a good example of an airport that has benefited from these developments and which continues to do so as this report is written. Indeed most of its growth is coming from the long haul segment presently. For example: 

  • The instigation of a six-city US network by Norwegian Long Haul on behalf of Norwegian Air Shuttle (Fort Lauderdale; Los Angeles; New York JFK; Orlando; San Juan [Nov-2015] and Boston [May-2016]). Norwegian is currently promoting its premium cabin in this market;
  • WestJet’s initiation of a six-city network in Canada connected to Gatwick in summer 2016 (Toronto; Calgary; Vancouver; Alberta; Winnipeg; St John’s). If WestJet replicates its existing Glasgow and Dublin services from eastern Canada it may use the Boeing 737-700. It code shares with 13 airlines from across the global alliance spectrum ;
  • The recent announcement that all three of the daily Emirates services to/from Dubai will be operated by an A380. Emirates is representative of a globally unaligned carrier that has a linear agreement (with Qantas) for onward travel over Dubai. While most Emirates passengers travel to Dubai uniquely, a high proportion are using the airline’s services to bypass primary hubs in the west. (And Emirates does attract passengers at Heathrow with this offer, as an alternative to direct services from a primary hub/gateway)

London Gatwick Airport capacity share by alliance, 14 to 20-Sep-2015

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London Heathrow Airport capacity share by carrier type, 14 to 20-Sep-2015

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There is a fundamental ideological difference here between the Commission, which was not convinced that independent airline activity and localised alliances would replace traditional global alliance agreements in the foreseeable future and consultants such as CTAIRA, which takes the view that (quote) “There is… a need for forward-looking assumptions based on already emerging trends rather than a set based on the continuation of an already changing historical position and misplaced perceptions.”  There is no clear guideline to who should, or will, prevail in that argument.

Taking the argument on transfer traffic a stage further, the consultant argues that a key issue is that the only airline group that currently has access to intra-airline/airline group domestic transfers at London is BA/IAG and that this is unlikely to change given the closure of Virgin Atlantic’s “Little Red” services to Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Furthermore, even if easyJet was to establish a 15-30 aircraft base at Heathrow, post expansion – made much more difficult due to the reduced ‘operating day’ restrictions there proposed by the Commission – that airline’s management is sticking to its view that passengers will “self-connect” (see below). Given that the proposal is that easyJet would operate from the current Terminal 4 (as it suggested to the Commission in Jan-2015), the minimum self connecting times are likely to be significant and it is inevitable that more attractive options for connecting will exist at airports elsewhere.

Alternative connecting routes outside London have increased travel options for regional passengers 

The consultant also takes the Commission to ask for this assertion:

“Links to other hub airports in both Europe and further afield are generally considered a supplement rather than a replacement for connections at Heathrow” and “Passengers to or from other UK nations or regions who are obliged to transfer through other European airports or Middle Eastern hubs... costs time and money”.

The contrary view is that although there are undoubtedly some cases at the margin where this may the case, and where there is additional cost and time involved in an actual or “theoretical” journey, for the majority of travellers the services to from the “other UK nations or regions” that are offered and provided across other connecting airports have dramatically increased the travel options for this growing group of passengers.

The consultant’s analysis provided few examples where the Commission’s statements hold. Indeed, it argues, one-stop flights via most of the connecting points other than Heathrow are not only competitive in terms of timing (many better than via Heathrow) but transferring via another connecting point also offers a greater range of final destinations (for outbound passengers) or origins (for inbound passengers).

Particular reference is made to Dublin, potentially an alternative hub for IAG, which has already handled 670,000 transfer passengers so far this year (to Sep-2015) which is 24% growth, and where trans-Atlantic traffic is up by 42%. Dublin Airport is Europe’s sixth largest airport for trans-Atlantic connectivity. It is connected to most UK airports, including Gatwick, by the new IAG airline Aer Lingus.

London is a destination rather than a connecting point to the Chinese

CTAIRA goes on to talk about the development of emerging market traffic (for example from the BRIC countries) and how it is assumed this must mean Heathrow. The Commission stresses frequently how the UK needs to be better linked to these markets. But CTAIRA argues that an increase in airport capacity alone is not a sufficient condition to ensure such an outcome as it is the airlines that will need to be able to operate such a route or routes profitably. Furthermore, in terms of emerging markets London is not well placed for connecting traffic although it will increasingly be a destination city for services operated by airlines based in the emerging markets.

Moreover there appears to have been insufficient attention paid to the direction of traffic flow and which airlines will provide the capacity and traffic. In particular the majority of the growth in passenger numbers on these routes will result from a combination of inbound demand and decisions taken by airlines based at the non-UK end of the route. In the case of travellers from the emerging markets, and from China in particular, London is seen as a destination market and not a connecting point.

There is a need to keep a sense of perspective in terms of the importance of Europe in general and the UK in particular for Chinese tourists; although they will grow they will remain among the smaller destination markets for this group of travellers. Some 10 years ago 75% of all Chinese outbound travel spending was related to business travel.  The figure now is less than 50% and by 2023 is estimated to be some 38%.

The key driver for Chinese tourism is the level of household income. Because of its growth there is likely to be a significant increase in the number of Chinese tourists travelling to some long haul destinations. Some 70% of all Chinese international travel (outside Hong Kong and Macau) is to city destinations and this trend is likely to continue. Those visitors tend to travel more to Paris but to spend more bed nights, and money, in London. Changes in visa arrangements are likely to prompt a further increase in inbound visitors, perhaps by up to 20%.

Notwithstanding this, the reality is that in volume terms the UK may remain a relatively small market for inbound tourists from China given the other opportunities that are open to them - and the visa restrictions that inhibit travel. Against this background an increasing number of inbound leisure passengers will be carried by airlines from the ‘home’ end of the route and from a growing number of originating cities, but in all cases London will be seen as a destination city.

And the airport of entry into the UK is really irrelevant, as is perhaps suggested by Hainan Airlines’ charter series into Birmingham Airport in summer 2015, which followed a previous one by China Southern in 2014 and which may lead to scheduled service at that airport or other regional ones later. Tourists were delivered into an airport close to William Shakespeare’s birthplace, which was the chief objective of the tour, with other tourist cities, including London, being included in a surface travel package. Or the announcement as this report is published of a direct scheduled service to Manchester, during the visit of Premier Xi Jinping. Such a service will be oriented both towards trade and tourism. 

London’s role as a hub will inevitably continue to diminish as other airports challenge

In summary, the consultant concludes that it is becoming increasingly clear that London’s position as a hub for transferring passengers, particularly to and from emerging markets, is declining and will in fact diminish further in the future.

This is due to a combination of factors, some of which have been highlighted above, including: 

  • The geography and the rise of Middle East hubs (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and including Istanbul);
  • The current and likely future capability, particularly in terms of range and cost, of new generation aircraft (B787, A350 et al) which can fly further and more efficiently;
  • The strategies of the home-based airlines such as British Airways;
  • The strategies of competitor airlines (and airline and airport combinations) and;
  • Changing traveller behaviour and the increasing demand for point-to-point services.

The second strand supporting Gatwick’s final push to overcome the Commission’s recommendation comes in the form of a recently agreed mechanism by which to support connecting traffic there. Although the airport’s case is based mainly around the perception of less ‘hub’ and more ‘O&D,’ it is at a disadvantage over Heathrow in that less actual opportunity existed to transfer passengers who do wish to do that, when most of the airlines there are not purposefully seeking to increase numbers of that type of traveller.

EasyJet for example offers 100 year-round and seasonal cities from Gatwick, some of which are difficult to access both from other parts of the country and from Heathrow. But easyJet does not yet encourage connection between its services. There is formal hub activity taking place, but it is on a much smaller scale than at Heathrow.

But the opportunity, and the need to ‘self-connect,’ is becoming more intense, as was demonstrated in a CAPA report in May-2015.
See: Redefining airport hubs: (Self)-connectivity: the next vital piece in the industry’s advancement.

As that report indicates, substantial self-connection is already taking place at airports where there is domination by budget airlines (LCCs) such as London Stansted (where they have 95.3% capacity) and Kuala Lumpur (53.6% and 100% at the klia2 terminal).

Self-connection matters at Gatwick and can be ‘insured’

Gatwick does have a strategy to deal with self-connection - the Gatwick Connect service in the arrivals baggage hall, which it operates itself. It ensures that arriving passengers can quickly re-bag-drop checked items as soon as they have collected them from the reclaim belt – regardless of the airline they arrive on and then move directly to security.

The scheme was launched originally with Norwegian, and then expanded. It is now open to passengers arriving on any airline, in either terminal, and departing from either terminal – providing the onward departing flight is operated by easyJet, Norwegian, Virgin Atlantic, Thomas Cook, Flybe or WOW. Where a change of terminal is needed, a 24-hour shuttle bus is in operation.

This is not unique and one of the better known examples is the Tigerconnect facility at Singapore Changi Airport that was introduced in response to the rapid rise in LCC traffic there.

More singular though is a recently announced ‘insurance scheme;’ a proposition aimed initially at passengers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands. The proposition is: "Pay us (the airport, not the airline) a fee when you book the flights, and if the transfer goes awry we’ll look after you". The intention is to eliminate the financial risk of self-connection.

Prospective passengers are directed to Gatwick Connects through two fare-comparison websites, Dohop and Skyscanner. They book in a single transaction, which includes a fee for Gatwick – starting at GBP27.50 for a one-way journey. The deal the airport offers is that if the inbound flight is delayed or cancelled, and so the passenger misses his outbound flight from Gatwick, it will ensure he gets onto the next available departure to his destination, at no extra cost to him. The airport will also provide hotel and food vouchers if necessary. It applies equally whether the passenger is self-connecting on the same airline or attempting what might be called self-interlining.

The offer comes very close to matching the default requirement of an airline which is the delivering carrier when a through (IATA) ticket has been purchased, and must rebook the passenger on the next available flight if he misses a booked connection because of that airline’s tardiness, and provide meals and accommodation if necessary. It is only the service provider that is different.

In practice, early adopters of the offer, probably savvy business travellers, will be wary of any ‘insurance small print’ that doesn’t apply in the case of the IATA ticket and it will be interesting to see how the procedures develop and what pitfalls they encounter.

There are some deficiencies compared with formal through ticket transfers. Luggage is not moved automatically from the first flight to the second. Instead, passengers must retrieve it, check it in again at the Gatwick Connects desk in the arrivals hall, then go to the departures level and queue for security. But multiple security checks are still common for formal transfer passengers anyway and Gatwick includes fast-track security clearance in the scheme – and throws in a glass of wine at an airside bar!

The insurance scheme airline take-up is slow so far

The other downside is that at the time of writing only three airlines had signed up for the scheme. LCCs such as Ryanair and hybrids like Monarch and Flybe (which has abandoned its base at Gatwick and only has one route there anyway) are not yet participating, and no protection is offered thus far to passengers to fly to Gatwick to connect with package holiday flights with Thomas Cook or Thomson, which is an important part of the business mix.

It might also be argued that the single flight offered by FlybeNewquay – needs to be included in this offer. Flights to and from the isolated English West Country (where attempts are being made to reopen Plymouth Airport) are high up the government’s agenda, and Heathrow Airport has been quick to promote how a third runway there could lead to protected PSO (public service obligation) routes from airports in that part of the world into one that (a) is reasonably convenient for Greater London generally; (b) will soon offer fast onward rail connections across and beyond London (via Crossrail); and (c) is a gateway to the world.

Already Heathrow is offering a financial contribution to route development funds for new UK domestic routes and is promoting foreign investment in different and far flung cities of the realm via advertisements aimed at arriving business passengers. The latest is Glasgow. (Edinburgh Airport, in a city which probably won’t benefit from such largesse - along with Manchester and Birmingham - is wholly owned by GIP, which has 42% of Gatwick Airport).

That is why an initiative like this at Gatwick is so important and why it needs to be perfected, enhanced and expanded as soon as possible. At the very least it has begun to narrow the gap with the seamless international travel offer made available by Heathrow.

This announcement helps convey a message of greater connectivity, potentially to and from more cities (Gatwick has more destinations than Heathrow) and without the encumbrance of having to stay with one carrier or with an ‘organised’ set of carriers, which is not attractive to some people. The new product should make Gatwick look more like a hub, even if it is a manufactured one.

Change of Labour leadership is chaotic but comes at the right time for Gatwick

For the final strand of the proposition, the political situation, takes centre stage. Since the big debate into the provision of just one extra UK runway began three years ago CAPA has consistently argued that whatever decision was ultimately made it would be guided more by political expediency than by any other factor, no matter how well researched and detailed the Airports Commission’s final report was. We see no need to change that opinion now.

As reported earlier the UK has a new Leader of the Opposition, together with a Cabinet consisting partly of like-minded individuals and many of them from what is regarded as the extreme left. In many ways Labour might now be compared with Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.

This should be kept in perspective. Jeremy Corbyn’s first three weeks in the job have been chaotic and he is at odds on policy with half of his own Cabinet. Many senior Labour MPs are waiting for 'Bobby Ewing to step out of the shower,' an allusion to the surreal moment in the 1980's US TV drama Dallas and a character whose death turned out only to have been in another character's dream, for an entire series.  It is not possible to be an effective opposition under these circumstances let alone a government, and the electorate knows it.

Mr Corbyn is supported by and was elected by the unions and the rank and file members (many of whom are new, young and extremely idealistic); not by his political party and the vast majority of his MPs.

The tenure of Mr Corbyn and this Shadow Government-in-waiting could end very quickly and very soon. It is unlikely it will get past the May-2016 election of the London Mayor if the Labour left placeman, Sadiq Khan, is not elected because that will be interpreted as a public vote of no confidence in Labour (even if it only applies to London) as this new brand of Labour is not being heard in the wider electorate, and a coup can be expected swiftly to take place. The plotting is inevitably under way already.

Between then and now Mr Corbyn could fall for any one or several of many different reasons.

A Corbyn government would renationalise the railways – and the airports, too?

Mr Corbyn has already said, in his first policy declaration since his election, that he would renationalise the railways ‘line by line’ as their individual franchises expire. Presumably he would then move on to deal with the not-for-profit track operator Network Rail, about which the executive who was asked to come up with a plan to revive its fortunes has recently commented on, indicating she cannot rule out recommending its....privatisation! (Coincidentally the very first policy declaration of the previous administration in 2010 was also on a transport issue, i.e. the cancellation of the then agreed scheme to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport!)

Which begs the question what would Mr Corbyn do about the UK airports? Renationalise them as well? There is barely a single airport in the UK now that does not have at least partial private sector ownership, with global funds heavily involved with the bigger ones. It may be the case, as Sir Howard Davies pointed out, that ‘private capital waits for demand’ (i.e. before investing), although latterly many of the major UK airports have been far less tight-fisted than they were, but the main issues here are the sheer scale of re-nationalising airports one by one like the rail lines, and what it would say to foreign investors into Britain.  Which is - you’re not welcome.

But what does this have to do with the runway decision right now and with Gatwick Airport?

There are so many disconnects between Mr Corbyn’s philosophies and his fellow Shadow Cabinet and the private sector that it is difficult to know where to start. But the important point where airport runway selection is concerned is that he and his supporters like John McDonnell came along at just the right time to create yet another hurdle for Prime Minister Cameron. That is not to say that Mr Corbyn actively supports Gatwick. Indeed he recently told the media that he supports neither Heathrow nor Gatwick, without saying what he actually does support (which makes him a potential stable mate of IAG’s Willie Walsh).

For the record Mr McDonnell (who is MP for Hayes and Harlington, right next door to Heathrow) is against that airport’s expansion – mainly on environmental grounds -, has unequivocally stated so, and has a long history of protest against it while London Mayoral candidate Kahn has also said he opposes its expansion, probably to neutralise the appeal of the aforementioned and now selected Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith who is yet another one who is lined up against it.  But if push came to shove and ‘there has to be a choice’ we feel the odds are that Mr Corbyn would favour Gatwick over Heathrow. As things stand right now all he has done is to hint that expects Labour MPs to oppose a third London runway, on air quality considerations.

Labour-SNP coalition could make a comeback

As Mr Corbyn casts around for allies in the months (weeks, days?) to come there is the distinct possibility of a return of the nascent understanding that was developing before the May-2015 General Election between Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) that was intended to remove the Conservative led administration from office. In general terms Scotland (with the obvious exception of Edinburgh Airport) through its various city councils and chambers of commerce, tended to side with Heathrow during the Commission’s deliberations on the grounds that the west London airport’s route network offered the greatest potential to help Scottish industry and commerce grow in the global marketplace.

But that policy could change. Both the lowland airports, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in particular have been performing well during 2015, attracting new direct routes and achieving record passenger figures. It is direct routes that stimulate economic growth, far more so than multi-terminal connections. It might also dawn on the Scottish Executive, the SNP and the Scottish Labour Party, which is still in intensive care following its thrashing by the SNP in the May-2015 General Election, that an expanded Heathrow with an extra runway theoretically able to provide for many more transcontinental flights that might have gone to Scottish airports (as they might have gone to Manchester or Birmingham) could be as much of a bad outcome for the Scottish nation as a good one.

And then there is the possibility of a second Scottish Independence Referendum, which has reared its head again. Such an eventuality could arise from either a UK-wide vote to leave the EU (that referendum will take place before the end of 2017 and could do so in 2016) or from other factors.

An independent Scotland would not want to be ‘tied’ to Heathrow as its air outlet and with Edinburgh (the capital’s) airport in the same stable as Gatwick, sentiment might be on its side.

In the meantime, the Labour Party and Scottish Democrats have it in their power to put a lot of pressure on the government as there are bound to be Conservative defectors from any ‘whip’ (government instruction) to support Heathrow expansion, while the overall Parliamentary majority for the government is only 12 (i.e. just seven defectors would mean it lost a vote, all other things being equal).

Messrs Johnson and McDonnell make an unlikely but threatening double act for Heathrow

One final observation on this confused environment. Both the existing London Mayor and protagonist for an entirely new airport in the River Thames estuary (Boris Johnson) and the Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, share neighbouring Parliamentary constituencies that embrace Heathrow Airport and also the part-military Northolt Airport, for which a failed case was made to the Commission. Neither has much actual ‘power.’ Mr Johnson is regarded as an outsider, on the fringe of the Cabinet but excluded from the Special Committee examining the Commission’s report. He may never realise his ambition to be Prime Minister even if his reception at the recent Conservative Party conference was more rapturous than that of his competitors for the job.

After May-2106 he will be no more than a ‘backbencher.’ Mr McDonnell, about as politically diametrically opposite to Mr Johnson as it is possible to be is merely an opposition spokesman,  with no actual power and the odds are he never will have. But for the two of them to join forces on a platform to attack Heathrow’s expansion must be of deep concern to the management there, while pleasing the Gatwick management no end.

To conclude as best we can. Those lined up against Heathrow include The current Mayor of London and the two aspirants to be his successor, possibly as many as half the Cabinet, the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor. There is no absolute certainty that the Prime Minister and Chancellor support it though it is believed they do. 

In Oct-2015 the government announced the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission charged with the responsibility to 'Get Britain Building' and led by Lord Adonis, a previous Transport Secretary. It appeared this might be another a cop-out by the government but the Commission's remit does not include Southeast England airports or examination of the Airport Commission's recommendations.

As the decision date approaches, the likely outcome remains cloudy

So these are very interesting times as the government approaches its momentous decision. In brief, the pendulum has swung a little in Gatwick Airport’s favour just lately, courtesy of a reasoned economic argument against the Commission’s conclusions, which has been touched upon here, also the improved air connectivity outlook at Gatwick, which is allied to developments in surface access there. For example rail capacity will double by 2020 and triple by 2030, and a new station is to be built. These improvements will take place irrespective of the runway decision going for or against Gatwick.

Moreover, with the legal moratorium on further runway construction before 2019 dealt with Gatwick is confident it could have a runway in place by 2025, some time before Heathrow, while it has at least the same degree of support from the local business fraternity as does its West London rival.

It is hardly a case of a collapse by the Marathon leader as he enters the stadium for the final circuit but the runner behind him has definitely got his second wind and has the leader in his sights.

But at the end of the day it will probably be the highly political issue of air quality which will impact on the outcome, more than any other. The Transport Secretary reiterated that early in October. Wherever there is an airport there are air quality issues and the government is talking to aircraft engine manufacturers about what they are doing in this respect. The one disadvantage that Heathrow has is the pollution arising from vehicles that are delivering passengers or just passing through a very built up area. The Volkswagen scandal probably came at the wrong time. Even though Heathrow's CEO believes it will force manufacturers to shift more into electric and hybrid vehicle production that will take a decade to materialise. In the interim attention is focused on vehicle pollutants just as the final decision is about to be made.

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