The government’s airports review will simply end up on a shelf, and major airlines will still be operating from a two-runway airport at Heathrow in 2050. That was the stark warning delivered by the chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG Willie Walsh this afternoon as he gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee. Walsh told the MPs on the committee:
‘I think the decision of the government to establish the Davies commission has been seen by some as a step in the right direction. I think personally I’m not optimistic… My own view is that the issue is too difficult for politicians and governments to deal with and I’m not optimistic that anything will change in the foreseeable future and as a result of that we’re planning our business on the basis that there will be no change to the capacity of the airports that we operate at in London and have made decisions based on that assessment so I’m an interested observer at this stage.’
He added that ‘in 2050, if we want to take that as along British Airways will be operating from a 2-runway airport at Heathrow.’ He told the committee that ‘from a political point of view, as an observer, I see no evidence of support… I can’t see how you take the report and do anything other than put it on the shelf’. The problem, he said, was ‘fear on the part of politicians: I think they are afraid to tackle tough issues’. He’s not far wrong with that: the Davies Commission’s timetable to report back after the 2015 election shows just how afraid politicians are about its recommendations.
Walsh’s whole evidence session wasn’t very encouraging: not least because he seems determined that if any airport is going to expand, it should be Heathrow. He dismissed the idea that Gatwick could build a second runway, saying he wasn’t aware that the airport authorities had approached the airlines operating from its current runway to see if they would actually want another one. Walsh certainly doesn’t. ‘I don’t see a business case to build a second runway at Gatwick,’ he said.
But he believes that demand for flights to and from Heathrow will continue to grow, and because the only way we’ll get growth at Heathrow now is by increasing the size of aircraft’, BA is looking to use larger planes so that it can carry more passengers with each flight. But because the debate was currently about how to constrain the west London airport rather than expand it, the ‘UK economy will still suffer as a result of the lack of capacity’.
The committee – those MPs who had actually turned up, at least – were all rather dispirited by the session. Kwasi Kwarteng described some of the points Walsh was making as ‘disturbing’. Those points also sounded pretty plausible, given the amount of opposition within the Conservative party to Heathrow expansion, and the energy that Boris Johnson has been pouring in to his campaign against a third runway.