Heathrow told to stop moaning about capacity

Gatwick boss says claims about aviation in London are harming the economy

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The Independent Online

Gatwick's chief executive blasted a warning at his Heathrow counterpart yesterday, saying that moans about London's strangled aviation capacity are damaging Britain's business prospects and his base was enjoying strong growth from emerging markets.

"If we want to get economic growth going in this country we can't afford to be sending out a message that airports in London are closed for business," Stewart Wingate said. "Gatwick has the capacity to transport 11 million more passengers a year."

His comments came as aviation industry and business leaders met in London to beg the Government to set out a secure and long-term airport policy after "almost 50 years without effective action".

The Government is preparing to launch a consultation on aviation policy, having accepted the need for further runway capacity in South-east England but maintaining opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways-owner IAG, said: "We've had years of government inactivity on aviation policy and this consultation must result in a plan of action and the commitment to see it through – not another fudge.

"It's the UK that loses out while around the world they will rub their hands with glee as we stumble along our path of inactivity."

However, Gatwick, the world's biggest single-runway airport, showed that some parts of South-east aviation still have room to grow, by posting a 17 per cent surge in underlying earnings to £221.5m in the year to April after winning new routes to South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China.

Colin Matthews, the chief executive of Heathrow's owner, BAA, has centred his campaign to overturn the Government's rejection of its expansion plans on the idea that Britain's economy will be strangled by a lack of connectivity.

Heathrow claims its position as the UK's hub airport, with regional and short-haul flights helping to fill long-haul jets, means it alone can attract flights to fast-growing economies. And business bosses, including the CBI's chief executive, John Cridland, and Michael Spencer, the head of the broking giant Icap, are among those who have complained about Heathrow's constrained capacity.

But Mr Wingate said such comments are misleading. "If airlines read Heathrow's complaints about the capacity crunch, it might seem like there's no space in London," he said. "When we go to Asian carriers, the first conversation we have is to say, 'We have significant spare capacity, and it's at the times that you will want to land in London.' They can't believe it. It's really important that we get the message out there that Heathrow may be full, but Gatwick isn't, and nor is Stansted."

Gatwick, which the investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners bought from BAA for £1.5bn three years ago, saw its turnover grow 8.6 per cent to £517.4m last year. Passenger numbers grew 7 per cent to 33.8 million.

Mr Wingate said that Gatwick's £750m investment under new ownership was helping it to catch up with Heathrow. He said spending on technology meant it escaped some of the border delays that its major London rival is facing.

"The Borders Agency has national targets to achieve, and at Heathrow it has failed them most months," he said. "At Gatwick we have passed every month."