Long-haul thinking

Only Heathrow expansion can provide for Scottish business

Back in October we learned that after years of prevarication, the government would back a third runway at Heathrow.

It was, the secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling said, ‘a momentous decision’. The great debate that has dominated British aviation for so long finally seems to be coming to a conclusion.

As with any ‘momentous decision’, there is inevitably political fallout. There is division not just between parties but within them, with disunity in the cabinet and Zac Goldsmith firing the starting gun on a byelection, hoping the vote would become an effective referendum on the Heathrow expansion.

It was all in stark contrast to the more subdued announcement by the Scottish National party’s Keith Brown that the Scottish government had come to a decision too. Just a few days before Grayling took to the House of Commons dispatch box, Scotland’s economy secretary endorsed a third runway at Heathrow.

While there was much to commend the Gatwick bid, Brown argued, the third runway at Heathrow would provide ‘the most significant benefits’ to the Scottish economy.

Across Scotland, business leaders and the wider aviation industry tend to agree.

All but one of Scotland’s airports back Heathrow and it carries the support of more than 30 local chambers of commerce across the United Kingdom, including Inverness, Glasgow and Aberdeen and Grampian.

There are, of course, those in Scotland who object to airport expansion on strict environmental grounds but of those backing a third runway, Heathrow is the nation’s clear favourite.

So why is there so much more support for an additional runway at Heathrow rather than Gatwick? As ever in transport, it is all about connectivity.

As Europe’s leading international hub airport, Heathrow is not just an asset to London and the south-east but a vital part of the UK’s economic infrastructure.

Every nation and every region of the UK has a stake in Heathrow’s success. For Scotland, the northernmost part of these islands on the edge of Europe, air travel is not so much a luxury as an efficient, essential way of connecting our towns and cities with the rest of Britain and the continent.

Through Heathrow, Scotland connects to the world.

Nearly four out of five UK long-haul flights are from Heathrow and it provides more onward connections than any other airport in the country. Only six airports in the world have regular flights on more than 50 long-haul routes and Heathrow is one of them, with 82 – and the potential to expand to over 120 with a third runway.

Access to those routes, which link Scotland to both established and emerging markets, is of the utmost importance to the Scottish economy and the traffic is not all one-way.

Glasgow Airport, in the West Scotland region I represent, carries over 7.7 million passengers and contributes nearly £200m to the national economy.

The most popular route at Glasgow is the British Airways Heathrow service. Of all the passengers arriving in Glasgow from Heathrow in 2013, half started their journey outside of the UK.

Scotland cannot sustain the number of long-haul flights that a major international hub like Heathrow can. The spokes that come from that hub, however, are a critical link for families, businesses, our tourism industry and our own airports.

Heathrow, of course, is not just an international hub for passenger airlines. It is also Britain’s biggest port.

As a springboard to the rest of the world, this one airport handles 60 per cent of Britain’s airfreight and a quarter of all UK exports. Last year alone, that included 46,000 tonnes of fresh Scottish salmon.

My concern is that with Heathrow operating at 98 per cent capacity, our access to international markets and global destinations is being constrained.

We cannot miss out on the new opportunities that are waiting for us across the globe because of limitations on our national infrastructure.

Expansion of the UK’s only international hub creates potential for new flights and adds capacity where it is needed most. The third runway at Heathrow allows us to improve Scotland’s connectivity to that leading international hub and, in turn, to the world.

For jobs, for exports, for Scotland’s economic future, I am backing Heathrow.

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Neil Bibby MSP is Scottish Labour’s transport spokesperson. He tweets at @NeilBibby

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