Connections 'fuelling Heathrow growth'

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The growth in passenger numbers at Heathrow Airport is fuelled by international connections and not visitors to the UK, the Tories claimed today.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said the number of international connections grew by nearly 4,000 between 2000 and 2006

Over the same period, the number of international flights terminating at Heathrow grew by 919, while domestic terminations fell by 1,394, she said.

The Government has proposed a third runway at Heathrow as airport operator BAA believes that Heathrow is at capacity and needs another runway to remain globally competitive.

But official enthusiasm for the scheme appeared to be waning recently and Gordon Brown said a final decision would only be taken after full consideration of the environmental implications.

The figures obtained by the Tories were revealed in a secret briefing to lobby group London First by economic consultancy London Economics earlier this year.

Ms Villiers said the figures posed more "tough questions" for the Government on Heathrow expansion.

She said: "It is startlingly clear that that the growth in passenger numbers at Heathrow Airport has been fuelled by the use of our national airport by people who do not even stop to visit the country.

"The benefits conferred on the economy by transfer passengers are by no means clear. While the environmental and social cost of a third runway is high, the facts revealed by this report confirm that the economic case is looking thinner and thinner."

She said it was time for ministers to "bow to the inevitable" and scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow.

The Tories also said there were now fewer destinations for air passengers to choose from. As the number of transfer passengers grew, the number of destinations for Britons to fly to from Heathrow dropped dramatically, Ms Villiers said.

She pointed to BAA figures that revealed that between 1990 and 2006, destinations served by Heathrow fell from 227 to 180. Heathrow now serves fewer destinations than Gatwick, which has only one runway, she said.

Ms Villiers said that BAA and the airlines were "prioritising" passengers who only used the airport as a passing point during their journey - giving the airport operator extra revenues but adding little to the UK economy.

Labour MP John Grogan claimed last week that ministers had encouraged him to table a parliamentary motion calling for the third runway to be ditched.

Some 121 MPs, including 50 Labour backbenchers, have so far signed his motion urging the Government to rethink its plans and give full consideration to alternative solutions, such as high-speed rail links.

Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon is expected to announce the Government's decision on Heathrow next month.