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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

UK looks beyond Brexit with decision to build third runway at Heathrow

Calling the decision “truly momentous”, British transport secretary Chris Grayling said the government’s choice of Heathrow for expansion was “about saying Britain is open for business post [Brexit] referendum”.
An Emirates Airbus A380 prepares to land at Heathrow Airport in west London. Justin Tallis/AFP
An Emirates Airbus A380 prepares to land at Heathrow Airport in west London. Justin Tallis/AFP

The British government showed it was already looking beyond Brexit on Tuesday with its controversial announcement that a third runway will be built at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Calling the decision “truly momentous”, British transport secretary Chris Grayling said the government’s choice of Heathrow for expansion was “about saying Britain is open for business post [Brexit] referendum”.

For a decade, the government had been considering possible ways – many of them unpopular with the public – of easing air traffic congestion into and out of London. A third runway at Heathrow had been one of the possibilities, along with a second runway at Gatwick, another London airport.

Both airports are international but while Gatwick is mostly a hub for short-haul European business travellers, Heathrow fields passenger and cargo traffic from around the world.

The two airports had been tussling publicly over their bids. As recently as Sunday, newspapers in Britain were filled with advertisements published by Gatwick with the slogan: “Obviously.”

Gatwick had claimed its second runway would only cost £7.1 billion (Dh31.6bn), far less than the projected cost of Heathrow’s third runway – £17.6bn. A second runway at Gatwick would have also involved the loss of fewer homes in the vicinity of the airport.

If Gatwick had won the bid, it would have seen its passenger traffic jump to 82 million travellers each year by 2050, compared with 42 million now. Heathrow currently processes 75 million passengers a year, a number expected to increase to 138 million by 2050.

The choice of Heathrow wasn’t inevitable, John Strickland, the director of JLS Consulting, a London-based aviation consulting firm, told The National. “But it is the option most supported by the airline industry as it offers both the critical mass of traffic, the ability to attract connecting traffic, and more profitable business customers.”

But it was Heathrow’s global reach that seems to have swung the decision in its favour.

Earlier this month, Howard Davies, who chaired an independent commission to evaluate the various airport expansion plans for the government, told the BBC: “My own view is that after Brexit the case for Heathrow is stronger because Heathrow is the airport which links the UK to markets outside Europe.”

Mr Davies’ commission recommended in July last year that the government add a runway to Heathrow, and he said that developments since then, including Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, “reinforced in me the view that my conclusion then was the right one”.

Since the June referendum, Mr Strickland added, enlarging Heathrow has become “important to the development of new routes in the London market and to ensuring their long-term viability”.

SSubramanian@thenational.ae