Build a new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick or watch Britain wither, says airports chief

If no runway is built, “you could start to see some quite unpleasant things happening economically”

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Act on our advice, or see Britain decline - that is the message from the chairman of the Airports Commission.

Sir Howard Davies has insisted that the next government must act on his recommendation for expanding aviation in south-east England. He was speaking at the Airport Operators’ Association conference, where he set out his latest thinking on an additional runway at Heathrow or Gatwick.

Sir Howard said: “I hope to provide an evidence base that will make it very difficult for a future government to duck the issue.”

And if no expansion takes place, he told The Independent that “you could start to see some quite unpleasant things happening economically”.

Three possible schemes have been shortlisted by the Davies Commission: a second runway at Gatwick, and two schemes for a third runway at Heathrow.

The latest report of the Davies Commission concludes that each of the options may cost significantly more than the backers’ estimates, drawing upon evidence of cost-overruns from previous large infrastructure projects. 

Proponents of each of the schemes claimed that the latest report strengthened their case. Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick Airport, said: “I don’t think that Heathrow will ever deliver a third runway in my lifetime. So it then comes down to the question: will the politicians agree to Gatwick?”

Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said: “Business is telling the Commission that Heathrow is geographically in the best location, is the only airport that can deliver flights to the world's growth markets and the only option that has exports front and centre of its expansion plans.”

Earlier, the airport revealed its busiest-ever October, handling more than 200,000 passengers a day on average. His company’s proposal is for a third runway north of the existing pair. But the Davies Commission has also shortlisted the Heathrow Hub proposal to extend the northern runway at the airport to four miles or more, with a safety area, enabling the runway to be operated as two runways.

This is the idea of Captain William “Jock” Lowe, a former British Airways Concorde pilot. He said: "This practical alternative could increase available airport capacity by 40 per cent, minimise environmental impact and avoid bringing any significant new communities into the noise footprint."

Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG - which includes British Airways - expressed doubt that the political will existed to follow through on the Airports Commission report.

He said: “The work that Sir Howard Davies has done is world class. This has been analysed in a very structured way. But I remain to be convinced that anything will actually happen. Politicians to my mind won’t be brave enough to grasp the nettle.”

HACAN, the pressure group which opposes expansion at Heathrow, said Gatwick is the only deliverable solution. John Stewart, the group's chair, said: A new runway at either airport would boost the economy, but the report underscores the fact the noise at Gatwick would affect far fewer people. For politicians, that could be the clincher.”

The Airports Commission has launched a 12-week public consultation on the three shortlisted options. Sir Howard Davies conceded that “some of the lobby groups and some of the MPs have got their view and they’re sticking to them”.

But he rejected the suggestion that it was a lip-service exercise: “How could you best make an expanded airport a good neighbour? There’s a lot to be debated about that. I think we’ll learn a lot.”

Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai airports and a former boss of Gatwick, came out guardedly in favour of Heathrow, saying: “It is geographically better placed and has better connections. Two hubs has been tried and it didn’t work.”

But he said Gatwick would still fulfil an important role: “As a point-to-point airport, it has a great future; easyJet making Gatwick its hub has provided a purpose."