The UK Government will soon decide where to build a new runway in the South East.
Having lived and worked in the country, I passionately believe it is in Scotland’s interests that it should be at Gatwick so that competition can prevail and balanced growth across the UK can be fostered. My first job in airports was at Glasgow, where I was customer service director. I was part of a team that worked hard to improve the airport both in terms of the service we provided passengers, and the choice of destinations we offered direct from Scotland.
We were rightly under pressure from passengers and politicians, and from business leaders, to deliver new routes, direct from Scotland to markets in Europe and beyond, particularly in North America and the Middle East. People were tired of having to go to London to get anywhere and competition from European airports was forcing Scotland’s airports to raise their game. Then in 2009, the Competition Commission (CC), now the Competition and Markets Authority, completed its investigation into the UK airports market, finding that competition was almost non-existent and forcing BAA to release its grip on the market north and south of the border by selling three of its airports.
There were very few people around at the time criticising the replacement of a monopoly with competition. Later that year, Gatwick changed hands and I was appointed CEO. We spent time better understanding the demands of Gatwick’s passengers and refocused our £1billion investment to improve customer service, particularly around the security experience. Around that time, the thorny issue of a new runway at Heathrow had been exercising politicians. Not for the first time, it had proved too difficult. Three terms of a supportive Labour Government had failed to get the project anywhere close to a planning inquiry, let alone the bulldozers.
The perfectly justifiable environmental concerns of Londoners, particularly those in the West of the city, had put paid to Heathrow’s growth prospects again and the airport itself stopped working on the project. Fast forward a few years, and the perennial question of airports capacity returned. This time, Government presented the problem to Sir Howard Davies and a team of commissioners. The most significant feature of this latest debate was the participation of Gatwick, under new owners.
For years, Gatwick existed in the shadow of the dominant and expensive Heathrow. Important matters such as the UK’s airports policy was left to the clever people at head office, which was eventually located at Heathrow. However, times have changed. The reason we chose to enter the competition to build the UK’s next new runway is because we fundamentally believe in competition and choice. What business does not?
The Competition Commission itself suggested that breaking up the BAA monopoly would lead to “lower prices, improved levels of service and more efficient investment in response to customers’ needs.” Who would argue against such things? So, the question of where to build new runway capacity boils down to a simple question: competition or monopoly?
At Gatwick, we have built our entire case on competition. To Scotland, we have consistently highlighted that direct flights between Scotland and its key markets is preferable to a connection over London. Close scrutiny of the Airports Commission report itself suggests that Scotland will have a larger share of long-haul traffic in a competitive system as opposed to the monopoly one still being promoted by Heathrow.
The airports in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, have been hugely successful in recent years – creating direct connections between Scotland’s capital city and many points across North America, Europe and the Middle East. Gordon Dewar of Edinburgh Airport said recently that “a larger Heathrow will suck the life out of every UK airport outside London.” I suspect he’s right. A few weeks ago, I was in Scotland with Björn Kjos, the founder and CEO of Norwegian Air, an airline that is building an exciting global network at Gatwick and which signalled to Scottish business people and Ministers that it is prepared to do the same at Edinburgh, provided the right competitive policy backdrop exists.
The truth is Scotland is less dependent than ever on large London airports for its global connections. What matters more is competition – whether that is from European airports or others in the UK – and consumer choice. Gatwick expansion fosters more competition and a stronger network of competing and thriving airports across the UK; this supports the continued growth of airports in Scotland. As the Government considers a decision on airport expansion in the South East, it’s time to turn away from the failed options of the past and look to the future for a solution that works for all of Britain, not just a few.