The world’s three leading airline alliances have signaled their unwillingness to relocate from London Heathrow Airport in the event that a government-appointed commission proposes the development of a second hub airport for the UK capital. Statements made to the Financial Times newspaper last week by Oneworld (led by British Airways), Star Alliance (which includes Lufthansa, United Airlines and Singapore Airlines) and SkyTeam (which includes Air France-KLM, Delta Air Lines and China Eastern) have strongly suggested that they would favor the option of substantially redeveloping Heathrow and retaining it as London’s prime hub. If nothing else, it seems clear that none of the alliances would accept forcible relocation if authorities allow its competitors to stay at Heathrow.
However, the independent airports commission established last year by the UK’s Conservative-led government in response to accusations that, like its Labour predecessor, it has compromised London’s stature as an air transport epicenter by dithering over airport policy, now must wade through approximately 50 separate proposals to relieve Heathrow’s capacity squeeze. They include building a third runway at Heathrow itself and no less contentious plans to build an entirely new airport, most likely on a new man-made island in the Thames Estuary. The fact that London’s high-profile mayor, Boris Johnson, personally supports the offshore airport plans has made the battle over the two core proposals all the more politically tinged, to the extent that the concept has become known as Boris Island. Johnson, a flagrant self-publicist even by political standards, has engaged in what observers consider an undeclared campaign to replace his fellow Conservative David Cameron as Britain’s Prime Minister. His prime case against expanding Heathrow centers on the argument that more traffic would inflict discomfort on largely Conservative-voting residents of various leafy southwest London suburbs. Until he appointed the commission last year, Cameron sought to sit on the proverbial fence over the issue but then opted to consign the decision to someone else–in this case, the commission–after drawing accusations of stunting the UK’s economic recovery by failing to act. Plans call for the commission to publish a shortlist of airport development options by year-end, but it remains unclear exactly how the decision will take place.
Meanwhile, the management of London Gatwick Airport does not want to see its facility lose relevancy. It has therefore proposed the construction of a second runway there–a plan roundly resisted by local residents in the past. Stansted and Luton airports also have expressed eagerness to fill any void potentially created by an inability to develop Heathrow. The commission, led by economist Sir Howard Davies, must also evaluate the extent to which an assortment of other UK airports and airfields, including Birmingham, Lydd, Manston, Fairoaks and Cardiff, could absorb any overflow traffic from Heathrow. Proponents of that kind of approach have presented a credible case for making better use of other airports in the southeast of England and even farther afield. But the message from the major airline groupings seems clear: they see Heathrow as the only game in town, and they want to keep it that way.