Under expansion plans revealed by Prime Minister David Cameron, tens of thousands more flights are due to land in the south-east every year. He promises to expand airport capacity in the capital and home counties to deal with increasing demand. Although he highlighted plans for an airport like the Thames Estuary proposal from Mayor Boris Johnson, he said the growing strength at Gatwick for business services shows that the airport could become a rival to Heathrow one day.
Cameron said in a keynote speech that he's not blind to the necessity of more airport capacity – especially in the south-east. Gatwick is becoming a business airport for London under its new owner and is competing with Heathrow. However, they need to keep their status as a key global hub for flights, not just as a feeder route to larger airports in other nations – Dubai, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, for example. This will be controversial, but decisions need to be made for the long-term. They will put forward options in their aviation strategy to deal with this – including a detailed review of the pros and cons of a Thames Estuary airport.
The prime minister's words were seen by business leaders as a sign that the government is properly acknowledging the need to maintain a major hub airport in Britain. When asked if he is worming up to the idea of a Thames Estuary airport, he replied that they have always thought it's worth looking at the potential of these ideas.
Transport ministers have been rather dismissive about the proposal from Johnson – dubbed Boris Island – but Cameron insists the government has an open mind about the blueprint, while there are other schemes for an airport in the estuary. He's sure there will be several naming strategies. However, he praised Johnson for going out on a limb to push the idea, saying that the mayor did a great job of driving the agenda forward.
This comes as the government has ruled out building new runways at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. However, in the autumn statement, Chancellor George Osborne indicated that only another runway at Heathrow has been ruled out. The Department for Transport (DfT) has also said that opposing a third runway at the hub is a Coalition policy that won't change.
Virgin Atlantic owner Sir Richard Branson has recently called again for a third runway at the airport, saying it's better to expand Heathrow than to build a Thames Estuary Airport. Such a facility could take 20 years to build, and the UK will come to a halt in the meantime due to a lack of capacity. At the same time, he added, Gatwick is pretty full and a lot of business is going to Germany and France now.
Global Infrastructure Partners, the new owners of Gatwick Airport, have already revealed an outline for a second runway. Their long-term blueprint also includes a third terminal for the airport by around 2030. Another runway at this airport wouldn't be allowed until 2019 under a deal with councils in Sussex. It's projected that passenger numbers will grow to 40 million by 2020 through better use of its existing runway and bigger planes.