Is the interim report on British airports a political dodge?

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Most politicians agree that Britain needs more airport capacity, but where?
Most politicians agree that Britain needs more airport capacity, but where? Photo: Chris Ison/PA Wire

We're at Heathrow where we've been watching planes line up to take off and land, on average every ninety seconds.

Watching the skies you can see why few question the fact that this enormous airport is pretty much full to bursting. What there isn't agreement on is where to create more space.

For the boss of Heathrow the solution is glaringly obvious - build out the existing infrastructure here, expand the airport's status as one of Europe's biggest hubs and beat off competition from others like Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Gatwick airport argues however that with the biggest passenger growth in low cost 'point-to-point' travel - direct flights run by carriers like easyJet - that they should pick up the extra capacity with a new runway there.

Gatwick airport is pushing for an extra runway
Gatwick airport is pushing for an extra runway Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Archive/Press Association Images

But in ruling out Stansted and parking the Thames Estuary option for now, many now believe the Davies Commission is basically paving the way for Heathrow. One industry source described it as a "political dodge" to keep a lid on what would be a controversial decision which ever way it goes until after the next general election.

Although the business community is desperate to get on with building more capacity - with air links a critical part of how we trade - there is a tacit understanding in some quarters that it might not be helpful to make it an election issue. It is of "zero use" to the country if the issue becomes one which defines parties, the Heathrow boss told me today.

Read: Top five busiest hub airports in the world

London Mayor Boris Johnson, here visiting Hong Kong International Airport, has his sights set on a new airport for London
London Mayor Boris Johnson, here visiting Hong Kong International Airport, has his sights set on a new airport for London Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Nonetheless, although Sir Howard Davies doesn’t exactly say it, the expectation is clearly that Heathrow is the likely site of the next runway that will be built in the UK. But with a trail of botched or ditched decisions over building airports it’s not surprising that there are plenty of obstacles in the way.

There is local opposition, thousands of householders who would have to put up with more noise, and some homes that would have to be demolished. There is the matter of a planning process that would take around five years. There is political opposition, in the form of local MPs, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat who have vowed to fight the plan at every step. And of course there is Boris Johnson, the London Mayor and David Cameron’s rival, who has vowed to battle Heathrow and continues to push his idea of a mega hub airport in the Thames Estuary.

Tonight that feels far-fetched but it might not if, and it’s a big if, he were to end up as leader of the Tory party at some stage after the next general election, were the Conservatives to lose. At the very least he promises to be a vocal and troublesome opponent to any future expansion at Heathrow.

Read Deputy Political Editor Chris Ship's blog: Report signals Heathrow status quo no longer an option