Gatwick has dismissed findings of the National Connectivity Taskforce as “an exercise in manufacturing an outcome to support Heathrow’s third runway ambitions”.
The report into regional air connectivity to London comes ahead of the Airports Commission recommendations on airport expansion in the southeast after the May general election.
The study reflects a groundswell of opinion that early action should be taken in advance of any new runway capacity becoming available.
Otherwise, UK regions become ‘second class citizens’ by being forced to rely on overseas hubs while they wait for new runway capacity.
A taskforce survey indicated that 95% of those who responded agreed it was more important to be connected to a UK hub rather than one on the Continent (45%), while 80% wanted to see interim measures to improve regional air access to London improved quickly rather than wait until a new runway is built.
Presenting the 100-plus page report, which is supported by 16 detailed research papers, taskforce chairman Lord John Shipley said: “New southeast runway capacity must benefit the whole of the UK and not just London and the south-east.”
He added: “If the preferred choice for additional capacity is Gatwick airport with its point to point traffic focus there will remain a strategic requirement to promote regional links to other hubs in order to meet equitable global access.”
Lord Shipley stressed this was a “one-time, transformational opportunity” to change government policy on regional air access, whichever runway scheme is selected.
An alternative option identified in report is to make use of spare capacity at RAF Northolt to serve as a regional satellite, capable of providing “acceptable” access to Heathrow’s long haul network.
This could become a permanent solution if Heathrow does not get a new runway, according to the taskforce.
The loss or lack of a London link has challenged the long-term viability of some UK regional airports. Blackpool and Plymouth have recently temporarily or permanently closed, while Prestwick was only saved from closure by the intervention of Scottish government.
Lord Shipley said: “There is a chance to institute a major rethink of Department for Transport’s policy of non-intervention, which for 20 years has de facto prioritised international air access over domestic services to London’s two largest airports.
“The effect of the repeated failure of government to make strategically important decisions about runway capacity in the south-east over the last quarter of a century and then see them through, is a heavily congested and impaired market which forces UK regions to rely on overseas hubs for their global connectivity.
“However, the existing UK policy can no longer be defended when there is the prospect of over 250,000 additional take-off and landing slots being released when a new runway opens. Moreover, a failure to act now and adopt some relatively straightforward and low cost interim solutions, would be completely at odds with broader government policy priorities on economic growth and rebalancing.”
Gatwick has refused to be involved in the taskforce due to its links with rival Heathrow.
Heathrow is covering “reasonable travel, accommodation and other expenses” as part of its sponsorship of the task force’s secretariat and the research programme it is leading, the body’s website says.
“Heathrow Airport will have observer status at task force meetings, summary notes of which will be placed on the task force’s website, but will not participate directly in the task force’s work or influence its conclusions,” it adds.
Gatwick claims that it is “inevitable” that Heathrow's viewpoint will colour the thinking of the taskforce members despite their wish to remain independent.
Task force members include former British Airways chief executive Sir Rod Eddington and ex-VisitBritain chief executive Sandie Dawe. Knock Travel owner Doreen McKenzie is the area representative for Northern Ireland.
Gatwick chairman Sir Roy McNulty has written an open letter to former Newcastle City Council leader Lord Shipley calling for greater transparency, adding that the three biggest airports outside London – Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh – did not take part.
Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said: “Despite its claims to some objectivity, this is clearly an exercise in manufacturing an outcome that suits Heathrow’s ambitions for a third runway.
“We know others in the industry, including other significant UK airports share this view. In fact, we estimate that passenger numbers at UK airports - other than Gatwick - that are opposed to expansion at Heathrow are more than double those at airports cited by Heathrow as in support.
“The issue of connectivity is crucial for the UK and is one that stretches far beyond just Heathrow.
“People across the country have told us that – important as connections to London and destinations beyond are – they also want more direct flights to more global destinations from regional airports.
“For the UK, an expanded Gatwick would mean a stronger system of regional airports, more competition and choice, quicker transfers here, more cost-effective fares, and a better customer experience."
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