Gatwick hits back at Heathrow - devastating blow or too little, too late?

The underdog in the runway debate has gone for the jugular, but it needs the public to listen.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 11 Dec 2015

In a debate as sensitive and politicised as where to build the south east’s sorely-needed new runway, both Gatwick and Heathrow knew they needed to win over public opinion – hence London and its surrounds being plastered with ‘Gatwick, obviously’ and ‘Heathrow: Taking Britain further’ ads for the last year or so.

And even though the Airports Commission, led by MT diarist Sir Howard Davies, plumped for a third runway at Heathrow in July, the government has given itself until the end of the year to dither. So Gatwick is fully aware the fight for hearts and minds is not yet over – and has come out swinging.

In a 49-page report published yesterday, the smaller airport set out a lengthy list of criticisms of Davies’ two-and-a-half year, £20m study. The main points were:


Gatwick claims Davies massively underestimated its growth and overestimated Heathrow’s. For example, it forecasts Gatwick will hit 40 million passengers in 2024, when the Sussex airport is on track to pass that this year. But that by itself won’t cut the mustard with the travelling public.

Long haul routes

A huge part of the rationale for a third runway at Heathrow is that it provides more of the long haul routes that are crucial to connecting the UK with fast-growing emerging markets.

Gatwick, however, is claiming that it would only provide two fewer new long haul routes. That, it says, means it would also be able to up its share of the UK air freight market, which Heathrow currently dominates.

But Gatwick currently functions as a mainly short haul airport rather than a global hub like Heathrow. It can’t deny that demand at Heathrow is far greater and more critical. The Airports Commission is proposing to sate this and so help the larger airport compete with other hubs like Amsterdam’s Schiphol and the deep-pocketed Dubai, rather than dividing demand up with Gatwick.


Gatwick banged on about passenger charges before Davies’ report came out: one of its big selling points was it would cap them at £15. The Airports Commision, though, has estimated Gatwick will have to hike them to £20 to fund a second runway (compared to Heathrow having to put it up to £31). Gatwick, unsurprisingly, disagrees.

Gatwick also claims that Heathrow’s proposal to spend £560m a month between 2023 and 2025, compared to the £85m per month it spent building Terminal 5 is ‘unprecedented’. And it thinks Heathrow getting everything done by 2026 is unrealistic, particularly as it has not-inconsequential tasks like putting the M25 into a tunnel on its to-do list.

Economic benefits

The Commission said in July a third runway at Heathrow would add £147bn to the economy over six decades and 70,000 new jobs by 2050. But, according to Gatwick, it actually found the economic benefits of an extra runway at either would be the same. Then it reverted to a PwC analysis with ‘flaws’ - for example, assuming more passengers would fly from Heathrow than from other UK airports, without taking those losses to the other airports.

Air pollution

This is particularly controversial area, given the impact on air quality of more flights at Heathrow hasn’t fully been assessed yet. Arguably, Davies should have shelved the report until it had been. But he no doubt full well knows it could derail the Commission’s conclusions once the full pollution impact has been estimated. And he has argued Heathrow is far from the only contributor to bad air quality in west London, which can, he says, be mediated as part of wider anti-pollution measures.


This is the big one. Gatwick rather fancifully claims that Davies ‘has given no weight to the very substantial number of people who would be affected by noise around Heathrow’. Actually, his report proposed banning night flights, as well as a number of other noise-reduction measures.

There is no doubt that the sleep and sanity of tens of thousands more people will be hit by an extra Heathrow runway. But the Commission didn’t ignore that – and politicians won’t either.

So what?

Will this dossier have the devastating impact Gatwich chief exec Stewart Wingate would like it to? Not by itself it won’t.

People are well aware that Heathrow will cost more to expand and run. If Gatwick can prove its debatable claims that the economic benefits will be equal and it can function as a genuine long haul hub then it will start to have a fighting chance. Right now, though, both Heathrow and the Commission have hit back at Gatwick’s analysis, and there’s no sign its arguments will hold water with the public or body politic.

Of more import is the expected impact of air pollution and noise - and whether this will sway the government. Boris Johnson is already kicking up an almighty fuss, as is the likely Tory candidate to replace him as London Mayor, Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith.

If they can whip up enough voters under Heathrow’s flightpath then it’ll be no surprise if the government backs away from the third runway. Or, indeed, kicks the can of an extra runway into the long grass of economic doldrums once again. And that would harm far more than just the sleep cycles of west Londoners.

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