Heathrow Runway Bid Buoyed by McLoughlin's Overtures to Industry

  • Transport secretary says delayed decision won't slow project
  • Latest considerations aim to make plans legally `watertight'

U.K. Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said opponents of airport expansion in southern Britain should take no comfort from December’s delay in deciding the location of a new runway and that the time will be used to construct a watertight case for growth that’s immune to legal challenges.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has accepted the need for an extra landing strip and will reach a verdict on whether it should be built at London’s main Heathrow hub or the competing Gatwick site in time for the project to be completed on schedule by 2030, McLoughlin said late Wednesday at the British Air Transport Association’s annual dinner.

“I know many in the industry were disappointed that we delayed the location decision,” he told the event in London. “It wasn’t something we took lightly. But when opponents of expansion hailed the delay as some sort of victory, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The decision was delayed to make sure that we’re fully prepared, so we know from the outset we will get the job finished.”

Industry Appeal

McLoughlin, who BATA said had made himself available to speak at the event instead of the more junior Robert Goodwill, Britain’s aviation minister, told industry leaders in the audience that he understood their “concern and impatience” at the delay, which came after a state-appointed commission made an unequivocal pro-Heathrow recommendation, while stressing that Cameron’s endorsement of the business case for a new runway was “in itself was a big step forward.”

McLoughlin also said the runway choice should be determined by which option best serves the whole of Britain, something Heathrow, which wants to expand annual passenger numbers to 135 million from 75 million in 2015, argues it’s best-placed to do as Europe’s top hub for flights between smaller cities, with a location close to three motorways and two of Britain’s three main rail lines.

“One of the most persuasive arguments for new capacity is the links it will provide to the north, to the southwest, to Wales, to Scotland and to Northern Ireland,” McLoughlin said. “Let us make sure these localized benefits are articulated from the airports and the airlines that serve the regions.”

Cameron faced widespread condemnation for putting off the runway decision, with British Airways parent IAG SA calling the delay ego-driven after his prior pledge to block a new strip, and the Board of Airline Representatives in the U.K., representing more than 70 carriers, saying it was “dismayed.”

Mayoral Election

The British Chambers of Commerce said he’d been “gutless” over a move widely seen as aimed at avoiding embarrassment during London’s mayoral election in May, with Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith opposing a bigger Heathrow.

Heathrow Chief Executive Officer John Hollande-Kaye attended the BATA event and carriers including IAG, Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. and EasyJet Plc, which backs a new strip at Heathrow even though its main base is at Gatwick, had executives present. Heathrow said after McLoughlin’s comments that it “fully agrees” that the whole of the U.K. must benefit from runway expansion.

McLoughlin said six years of “intense planning” for the High Speed 2 rail line from London to northern England had shown the importance of establishing the soundest case for big projects given Britain’s “infrastructure-averse culture.”

Economic Analysis

With the runway decision on hold, the focus is on testing the commission’s conclusions on air quality to ensure “expansion can take place within the legal limits,” he said, as well as on noise levels, carbon emissions and “extra economic analysis to assess the runways’ potential locally and nationally.”

“To risk any chance of failure at this stage would be unacceptable,” McLoughlin said. “Does the delay mean we lack the evidence today to make a convincing decision? Absolutely not. We are using this time to make the case for new capacity even more watertight.”

McLoughlin said on Jan. 21 that he was hopeful that a runway decision could still be reached this year, though Britain’s referendum on whether to quit the European Union, which may be held as early as June, would inevitably take priority.

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