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Should Gatwick become London's hub?

While the South East airport capacity debate centres on a Heathrow third runway versus Boris Island in the Thames Estuary, Gatwick is coolly making an understated case for the next new runway to head its way.

Services there are growing, customer satisfaction is high and the new owners, led by Global Infrastructure Partners, have money to invest. With no serious plans for an estuary airport on the table, no committed politicians prepared to back a Heathrow third runway and with the clock rapidly now ticking towards 2019 – when an agreement with the local community not to build a second runway at Gatwick expires – it is far from beyond the realms of possibility that the much-vaunted UK hub airport status could shift south to Sussex.

Yes, today, it seems unlikely. Gatwick has just one runway and is a classic point-to-point airport and few airlines use it as a hub to transfer passengers around the world. But consider this: it is already UK’s second largest airport and the busiest single-runway airport in the world.

In addition it now serves more than 200 destinations in 90 countries for around 34M passengers a year on short and long-haul services. Only this month Air China launched its first non-stop service from Gatwick to Beijing. And significantly its owners – a group of international investment funds, of which Global Infrastructure Partners is the largest shareholder – are feeling punchy.

“Gatwick not only has the capacity to grow to serve 40M passengers by 2020 but also has the ability to serve London just as effectively as Heathrow – and do so for less than half the cost,” says Gatwick Airport chief commercial officer Guy Stephenson. “Air China’s decision to expand this route from Gatwick sends a strong message that Gatwick is competing.”

Stephenson knows that growth at his airport can be catered for with just one runway up to 2020. But after that, he needs more capacity. What chance that he will get it?

Stephenson is unsurprisingly sceptical of the Thames Estuary plan and doubtful of the chances of Heathrow getting its much sought after third runway – despite the growing pressure from big business and the airlines for government to chance its stance.

Both schemes are getting more and more vociferous in their lobbying and their efforts are attracting more and more attention.

Prime minister David Cameron told an audience of construction industry bosses at the ICE in March that the government was mindful of the need for more capacity in the South East. In the same week his chancellor George Osborne said it was time to “confront” the lack of airport capacity in south east England and committed transport secretary Justine Greening to setting out options later this summer. But both were insistent that this capacity would not come at Heathrow. Instead, they pointed towards proposals for a hub airport in the estuary, a proposal backed by recently re-elected London mayor Boris Johnson but utterly derided by airlines and business. And while Greening’s study won’t report until the summer, what alternatives – other than Gatwick – are there?

Consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff is currently carrying out a study for the recently formed South East Local Enterprise Partnership looking at ways to “squeeze” as much capacity as possible from existing major airports — while balancing air space design constraints, investment costs and surface access needs. The proposals could offer some wriggle room.

Because while Heathrow is virtually at capacity and by 2020 Gatwick will be too, Stansted and Luton have space. The killer question is how to use that spare capacity at “point to point” airports like Gatwick and Stansted in a way that supports business’ and airlines desire for London Heathrow to retain its “hub” reputation.

It’s not easy; but there is a way. Last year the Department for Transport is understood to have examined – and rejected – the idea of a high speed airside rail link between Heathrow and Gatwick. The theory of connecting up London’s two biggest airports by a 15 minute link that keeps transferring passengers airside is good, but the practicality, especially after Heathrow owner BAA was forced to sell Gatwick, is less so.

Any plans to better connect Stansted to either Heathrow or Gatwick are hardly easy either, especially with the future ownership of Stansted uncertain – BAA lost its appeal against a Competition Commission order to sell in February, although it is appealing that decision. It continues to argue that Heathrow and Stansted are different types of airport, serving different types of customer and therefore owning both is not anti-competitive.

That continued uncertainty is not helpful. Regardless, plans for a better Stansted to Gatwick link are gaining traction. Dubbed Brighton Main Line (BML) 2, promoters claim the idea borne out of a campaign to upgrade the Uckfield line near Brighton is worthy of serious consideration.

Key to it is a new direct link between Brighton and the Uckfield line achieved by means of a new 2km long tunnel through the South Downs. This relatively small infrastructure upgrade would unlock a second route from Brighton to London, permit the dedicated central London to Gatwick Express rail services to be reinstated, and offer Gatwick fast, direct trains to Canary Wharf Crossrail. These trains would not terminate there but continue on to Stratford and London Stansted.

Network Rail certainly accepts that the existing BML that serves Gatwick cannot cope with demand, and Gatwick’s owners are pushing hard for an upgrade.

They commissioned consultant Arup to look at how its future growth could be served and last month released its findings – chiefly that the BML needs serious upgrading between Gatwick and London.

Enhancing the airports’ rail links is critical: The number of people travelling between Gatwick airport and London by rail could increase by 30% in eight years and the number of non-air passengers travelling on the same services could grow by 29%.

Whether BML2 fits the bill has not yet been examined, although its promoters are keen: “It is a detailed and carefully thought through response to the increasing urgency to provide far greater capacity between major locations in the South East, but primarily London, Croydon, Gatwick, Brighton, the Sussex coast, Tonbridge and West Kent,” they say.

The suggestion is that the programme could be reasonably spread – with design complete and planning approval obtained by 2014 and construction complete by 2020; by which time a second runway at Gatwick could – in theory – be in operation. So is it really fanciful to suggest that a linked-up Gatwick and Stansted, with three runways between them, could be a serious contender against Heathrow? We will know soon enough; seven years is no time at all in transport planning.

Readers' comments (1)

  • If we are planning for the next 30 years, as we need to be, then south-east England will require a 4 runway hub airport. Having a split hub between two airports is inefficient and therefore an unattractive proposition for the airlines; they will take their hub operations elsewhere. The options are therefore to progressively expand Heathrow up to 4 runways or to relocate the hub to a location where 4 runways can be more comfortably accommodated. Gatwick is not the answer.

    The Foster/Halcrow Thames Estuary proposal is also not ideal since the site is constrained by shipping channels so the runway separation is insufficient to allow independent runway operation.

    The options are limited but I believe there is an alternative that is deliverable. 3D Reid and Beckett Rankine will be launching a detailed scheme proposal in June.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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