John McLellan: Hope for runway success

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The chocks are being pulled away on the runway as a decision which will shape the future of Scotland’s airports gets set for take-off.

It might seem like a little more than a local planning row, all be it on a grand scale, but which London airport gets an additional runway is crucial for Edinburgh Airport’s future development and has implications for the whole Scottish economy.

In July, after over two years’ consultation, the Airport Commission came down strongly on the side of a third runway at Heathrow in preference to a second strip at Gatwick. Other suggestions, like a new hub on reclaimed land in the Thames Estuary dubbed Boris Island after Mayor Johnston, were given short shrift.

But with a string of Tory MPs under the flightpath – including the new MP for Uxbridge Mr Johnston, and the likely Conservative candidate to replace him as London Mayor, Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith – it was political dynamite for David Cameron and so the UK government deferred the decision until the end of the 
year.

It might not be such a hot potato for First Minster Nicola Sturgeon, who over the summer somewhat predictably told the London Evening Standard that her 56 Scottish MPs would support which ever option was best for Scotland, but it’s as difficult a choice and the best option is unclear.

Gatwick can count on Edinburgh Airport’s backing, given both are owned by the infrastructure fund, Global Investment Partnership.

GIP has enrolled the help of Charlotte Street Partners, the fast-growing communications and policy firm set up by ex-SNP MSP Andrew Wilson and airports expert Malcolm 
Robertson, which recently recruited 
ex-SNP communications supremo Kevin Pringle.

Their argument is that Edinburgh’s chances of securing more lucrative long-haul direct services will be hobbled by creating what they say will become a UK monopoly in the big bucks business market. If London is what many Nationalists call the Death Star then Heathrow is its main door.

But Gatwick has big problems to overcome – the train link from central London is slow and then it can take 30 minutes to get from the grubby airport station to the domestic departure gates. Gatwick’s facilities are tired and inefficient so it doesn’t just need a new runway but completely rebuilt.

In the Heathrow camp are likely to be Glasgow and Aberdeen Airports which until last year were part of Heathrow Airport Holdings. They were sold to a consortium of Australian 
outfit Macquarie and Spanish firm Ferrovial which has a 25 per cent stake in HAH.

The Scottish Chamber of Commerce supports Heathrow expansion, as do Scottish tourism leaders who argue it is by far the best option because the world travel market wants a single, strong UK international hub. With the best will in the world, neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow will be challenging Heathrow any time soon.

The tourism view is that competition is not Edinburgh v London, but London v Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle and if a traveller chooses Amsterdam or Paris the next onward journey is less likely to be Scotland.

On the other hand, GIP has long argued that more services with hubs like Schiphol and Istanbul would open up options for global business 
travellers to Edinburgh, while choice could actually be reduced by a beefed-up Heathrow.

Three years ago Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson backed Heathrow in what at the time was seen as a split from the UK party which had included opposition to its expansion in the 2010 manifesto.

She argued then that giving 
opportunities to Holland and Turkey was just taking business away from the UK, a point which still holds good.

This week she dropped in to Edinburgh Airport for a chat with its chief Gordon Dewar and issued a statement urging her Westminster colleagues to get a move-on with the decision but notably the release acknowledged her previous position.

So which will it be? With Labour in disarray and only self-interested London Tories offering internal opposition I wouldn’t bet against David Cameron going with the Airport 
Commission recommendation, even if it means a fall-out with Zac Goldsmith.

And the SNP? Don’t bet against the 56 backing Gatwick.