Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

London Airport Expansion Risks Getting Lost After Brexit Vote

  • U.K. risks being distracted with trade treaties: Heathrow CEO
  • Power struggle could also push aside decision on new runway

A decision to ease the bottlenecks at London’s airports faces the threat of further delays in the aftermath of Britain’s vote over membership in the European Union on June 23, Heathrow Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said.

“If we leave the EU, the main focus of government will be figuring out what it all means, renegotiating treaties and so on,” Holland-Kaye said Wednesday in an interview at the Responsible Business Summit in London. “In that world, key decisions might just not be made for a long time and that would set the country back.”

After delaying a decision last year, Prime Minister David Cameron Wednesday stuck to his pledge to have a decision this summer on whether to add a runway at Gatwick Airport or Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub. His Conservatives, already divided on either side of the Brexit debate, are also split on airport expansion. A state-appointed Airports Commission has endorsed a plan to increase capacity at Heathrow.

Even with the prime minister’s commitment, speculation of a challenge to Cameron’s leadership in the event of a vote in favor of a Brexit -- or even after a close result -- has risen. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, a fierce opponent of the Heathrow expansion plans and a leader of the “Leave” campaign in the run-up to the referendum, could be a contender if the top job opens.

Expansion Needed

“Ironically, if we leave the EU, we’d need the expansion more than ever because the economic case for that relies on trade with all the growing markets of the world: Asia, North and South America,” Holland-Kaye said. “We will need more of Heathrow outside of the EU.”

Even in a remain scenario, a decision could still be prolonged if the Conservative Party is left in disarray with only one month between the referendum and a parliamentary summer recess to sort out a decision. But that may still be enough time, the airport CEO said.

“All the work has been done,” Holland-Kaye said. “I’d imagine government will want to get back to business as soon as it can because the recess is quite long.”

Without a decision before the break a definitive answer could slip toward the end of the year until after the Conservative Party’s annual convention where post-Brexit rifts will likely come to the fore.

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