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Airlines boss Willie Walsh slams Thames Estuary airport plan

Plans for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary were slammed last night by International Airlines Group chief executive Willie Walsh.

He said the proposals were unfundable and would meet with fierce resistance from those wishing to keep Heathrow open.

“I’ve never been a fan of Boris Island,” he said, using the nickname given to the Estuary hub after it won the support of London mayor Boris Johnson. “From a technical point of view it’s brilliant. The big concern is how it’s financed,” he said.

“I don’t see private investors being interested given the realistic cost of building the airport and all the infrastructure around it is going to be £50bn-£60bn. The massive financial cost is a big challenge.”

Walsh also warned that opposition to the hub airport plan would be fierce.

“It can only succeed if you closed Heathrow,” he said. “Experience shows that hub airports only work if you close the existing airports.

“And if you think there was a big battle around the third runway at Heathrow, then you’re in for a surprise because that was nothing compared to the battle you would have over closing Heathrow completely.”

Walsh, whose company owns British Airways and Iberia, said expansion of Gatwick airport was now the most likely way to meet capacity needs in the south east. The airport’s agreement with the local authorities in the area not to develop additional runway capacity expires in 2019.

“I suspect the answer to the south east’s capacity needs will be Gatwick,” he said. “But it is not going to address the UK’s slippage in its global position because a hub airport is so important.

Walsh, speaking at the URS prestige transport lecture at the ICE, said that the airline industry and the UK economy at large was being “challenged by political mistakes”. These include the coalition government’s decision to block development of a third runway at Heathrow, he said. Chancellor George Osborne once again explicitly ruled out the expansion of Heathrow in this week’s Autumn Statement, whilst saying the government was committed to working with the aviation industry tomaintain the UK’s hub status.

“I fully accept that the opportunity for a third runway at Heathrow is gone. But it is a scandal that the government has no policy in aviation and won’t until 2013,” he said.

He also said government should follow the lead of the Netherlands by scrapping Air Passenger Duty, which he described as a “damaging” tax to the UK economy. Osborne made no moves to do this in his Autumn Statement.

Walsh said he supported high speed rail and that his firm would stop flying between London and Manchester if a direct high speed link was built.

“We have openly supported High Speed 2, and if we had it I would stop flying London to Manchester.

“But it has to be properly connected to Heathrow,” he said.

He also cautioned over the long timescales involved.

“You have got to remember that it will be 2026 before HS2 gets to Birmingham and 2032 before it gets to Manchester, so it is a long way away.”

Readers' comments (9)

  • As Mandy Rice Davies said, "they would say that wouldn`t they"
    It is clear that British Airways is unlikely to agree to the potential dilution of its control over landing slots at the UK`s premier hub airport so Willie Walsh`s stance is wholly understandable.

    However, when the overall benefits of the scheme - ideally the Foster scheme - are set in context of the gains in noise, risk, pollution, flood prevention, overall communication & infrastructure gains, energy usage and the obvious and substantial gains in environmental conditions in the west of London, the scheme becomes very attractive.

    Given the record of successive UK Government`s lack of vision in the past thirty years, it is almost impossible to envisage any senior Politician being able to look further ahead than the next election so, on that basis, any such scheme is very unlikely to succeed

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  • No conflict of interest there then.
    “From a technical point of view it’s brilliant. The big concern is how it’s financed”.
    There's something called 'the market'. Test it.

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  • Boris Island £40 billion, HS2 potentially £40 billion, which would give the greatest benefit to UK plc?

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  • The advantage of moving the main air entry point to the UK to a purpose built new hub appears to me to be the clear way forward. The benefits of moving the multitude of flights from over the City of London have been detailed above by an earlier contributor to this discussion and I can only agree.
    It appears that the main issue raised by Willie Walsh, who of course has his own agenda for retaining Heathrow, is the lack of availability of finance. This clearly avoids the obvious revenue source which is Heathrow airport itself. If this very large area is made available for future development, in a City where there is very little space, the many billions needed for the new air hub could be realised without the need to search for either private finance, or the need to place any further burdens on the hard pressed tax payer.
    All that we need now is a forward thinking government who are looking beyond their present term of office.
    Alan E. Hames C.Eng.,MICE, MCIHT

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  • Tim Swift

    Of course, he would say all the above, which he is entitled to preach, as we are entitled to ignore.

    As I heard it, Willie's point on finance was that it wasn't "un-fundable" but it would be very difficult. He said the current major airports and passengers would be very unwilling to pay a lot now for some benefit many years from now.

    All of his points were in context of creating extra growth for UK Plc. with regards to intercontinental connectivity, particularly with the booming middle-class in the Asia-Pacific region.

    Also, whilst these ideas may be grand in their own right, they are nowhere near as efficient (nor as easy to implement in the short-sighted world of British Politics) as a simple third runway would be - politics aside.

    He also rightly pointed out the contradictions in current Coalition policy; i.e. cancelling supposedly CO2-increasing R3 on one hand and promoting greater manufacture of CO2-producing airline engines. And of course the economy-throttling effect of the APD which Willie on his hobby-horse decried as many a Liberal economist might.

    I for one came away finding it hard to disagree with Willie, natural scepticism aside, and feel that little more aggrieved. But maybe I shouldn't pay so much attention...

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  • There is a lot of unused space up towards cambridge or norwich, surely pushing the airport up would enhance travel not only from London but birmingham and sheffield/leeds. I hate travelling from Gatwick being from up north and believe we need to start spreading the wealth. its not all about london or the south east....

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  • It is not regarding creating a Purpose built hub for London, but it seems more like moving over 40,000 jobs from west London to South East. Same Agenda which Baroness Thather had for Maplin Airport.
    Cross Rail Project will bring Heatrow more closer to City. If transport initial concept for Heathrow would have been considered for the then Heathrow could have been the hub for direct Rail link with whole of UK as well as Continent.

    Half the cost of Thames Estuary Airport if invested wisely in transport upgrade including on London Underground, this can provide more efficient Air Link system for the whole city.
    M.A. Raza, M.Sc., C. Eng.,MICE

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  • Cambridge is not exactly North (or that accessible, unless roads such as the A14 are immensely improved). There is no “unused space” on the mainland of GB: it’s all accounted for, and UK produces about 2/3 of our food in a hungry world. The East of England contains especially fertile/ productive agricultural soil, provided (a) it is not abused and blown away and (b) means are found of dealing with the dry weather if this continues.
    We may need at any time, and quite fast, to go back to wartime-type measures to extract all the food possible from all available land.
    Building needs to be restricted to recycling previously used land. And consider what land can be reclaimed, bearing in mind possible sea level rise.
    That other crowded set of islands, Japan, has, I understand, three airports built on land reclaimed from the sea. The small enclave of Hong Kong has one, designed & supervised (?) by Arup

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  • I think I partly agree with Willie. Where are all the UK passengers for the Foster hub going to come from? I live SW of London, and together with everyone else who lives west of the city centre, Heathrow is my local/regional airport. Additionally, any UK airport has a geographical problem as a European hub. They are superb for flights across the Atlantic, as they can pick up trade from all over Europe, but if the trend is towards more flights going east, then who is going to fly to the edge of the continent just to fly back over their homelands a few hours later? Heathrow/Estuary will remain Europe's Atlantic hub, but that's about it. Finally, the idea of an HS2 direct link to Heathrow is pointless. Everyone deludes themselves about how many folk will fly in and then get the train to somewhere else. The rail network carries a vast number of passengers compared with the airlines. Why spend zillions on linking HS2 directly to Heathrow, just to carry a relatively small extra number of passengers while lengthening the journey for the majority? Old Oak HS2, with a fast airport rail connection (10 mins?), will suit Heathrow fine.

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