New runways at Gatwick and Heathrow will cost more than the airports claim, meaning higher airport charges and likely higher fares for passengers, according to an analysis published by the airport commission. The commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, set out its assessment of the three shortlisted options for airport expansion in south-east England as it launched its final public consultation on Tuesday.
The commission says Heathrow’s third-runway proposal would cost £18.6bn, £3bn more than the airport itself estimated, while the independent Heathrow Hub plan to extend and split the northern runway would cost £13.5bn, £3.4bn more than estimated. Gatwick’s second runway would cost £9.3bn, rather than the £7.4bn it estimated.
While the cost of Gatwick expansion remains significantly lower than Heathrow, the commission’s analysis could prove more damaging to its prospects.
Davies says the increased construction costs could more than double the current airport charges at Gatwick to an average of £15-18 and a peak of £23. Heathrow’s charges would also rise from £20 to £28-29, peaking at £32. However, Gatwick has staked its case on the provision of competition and low fares, so a substantial rise in charges for price-sensitive passengers – its biggest airline is EasyJet – would be more of an issue than at Heathrow, where fares are already far higher.
On Monday, Stewart Wingate, the Gatwick chief executive, said he would sign a pledge to keep charges below £15 and challenged his Heathrow counterpart, John Holland-Kaye, to make a similar promise.
Gatwick’s plan would disturb fewer people with noise and be the easiest option to construct, but Heathrow expansion would create more jobs, the commission’s evaluation says.
Davies told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the evaluation was necessarily detailed on noise implications, air quality and costs. He said: “There’s an awful lot of detail that people should properly know so they can react”.
He said he hoped the public would respond by relating the airports to the various criteria the commission had defined, including “novel measures”, such as a sense of place.
Davies confirmed Gatwick would be the cheapest option. “It doesn’t have the complexity of Heathrow. There’s a very interesting choice of model here. We have never said we don’t need a hub. The issue is how big that hub needs to be and whether the growth will be the point-to-point – the Ryanair model – or the British Airways-type global network.
“In the last 10 years you can see it is low-cost traffic that has grown more rapidly. That’s a big element of the debate where we will want responses from businesses and airlines [as to] how they think the world will look.”
The Gatwick chief said the consultation underlined why momentum was gathering behind his airport’s proposal.
“The UK gets the economic benefit it needs at a fraction of the environmental impact of Heathrow today,” Wingate said. “It would mean competition and lower fares for passengers. We have a financing plan and a construction project that can be delivered without huge risk to the public purse.”
Heathrow seized on the commission’s increased estimates of the economic benefits of its third runway, from £112bn-£211bn, compared with up to £127bn at Gatwick.
Holland-Kaye said: “The commission has confirmed that only Heathrow can connect all of Britain to global growth, delivering over £200bn to the British economy and 180,000 jobs while reducing noise for local residents compared to today. This shows that Heathrow’s proposal is deliverable and is the only way to keep Britain at the heart of the global economy.”
Anti-expansion campaigner John Stewart said: “It will come down to political deliverability. The report underscores the fact the noise at Gatwick would affect far fewer people. For politicians, that could be the clincher.”
The consultation will run until February 2015, with public meetings scheduled in the area of both airports in December.
Senior politicians have confirmed that the consultation is likely to be the public’s only opportunity to have a direct influence on the choice of airport expansion, with the commission’s recommendation due after the general election in May.
Robert Goodwill, the aviation minister, told the Airport Operators Association conference that the Conservative party would not be making specific manifesto pledges but said its decision would be based on the commission’s conclusions. “What the industry doesn’t want is for it to be a general election issue,” he said.