Gatwick has declared its intent to push for a second runway and is to start drawing up detailed plans for government approval.
Although an agreement prohibits any new runway opening before 2019 at Gatwick, the airport is to start detailed work on the options, to be presented to the government’s Davies commission on aviation with a view to getting the go-ahead after the next election.
A second runway would increase capacity to 70 million passengers a year and would also mean the construction of a third terminal building.
Campaigners warned they would “fight tooth and nail” against any proposal.
The airport’s chief executive, Stewart Wingate, said he believed a new Gatwick runway was the best answer to calls for more capacity in the south-east. He said: “A third runway at Heathrow won’t happen. The Thames estuary won’t happen. Stansted is only half full. But Gatwick is tremendously dynamic.”
In the three years since Gatwick was sold by BAA, Wingate said that owners Global Infrastructure Partners had invested over £650m and set up new routes to China, Korea and Vietnam. “So we have got wind in our sails, and the time was right to start the detailed work.”
The plans would eventually double the numbers of passengers at the Sussex airport, which believes its current capacity to grow from 34 million to 45 million with a single runway will see it through until the mid-2020s.
The timing of the announcement will push Gatwick to the forefront of government thinking on airport expansion, with the commission led by Sir Howard Davies being assembled to give its verdict on possible new runways in 2015.
Heathrow claims there can be only one “hub” airport in Britain – an airport that supports enough connecting flights to make long-haul routes possible – but Gatwick rejects that argument.
Wingate said: “We don’t see the world in the same way. For us the question is: how can London connect with the rest of the world? The hub argument says you can’t connect with the emerging economies – well, we’ve already done it.”
He said facilities would be ready next year for the larger Airbus A380 planes, while Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which make more long-haul destinations feasible, were coming to the airport soon.
Gatwick is committed to the agreement that prohibits physical construction of any new runway before August 2019, but will try to formulate detailed plans and secure planning permission as soon as possible.
Land has been safeguarded for construction to the south of the runway, where some houses exist among 17 listed buildings, although there are no large residential areas comparable with Sipson, the village threatened by Heathrow expansion.
Gatwick will be doing detailed work on environmental impacts such as noise and air quality. While fewer people are directly affected by noise than under the Heathrow flight path, an expanded airport is likely to prompt calls for greater controls and curfews.
The airport had always previously officially denied it had plans for expansion, despite publishing a “masterplan” in July this year that broached the option of a second runway in the next decade.
Wingate said: “We think we’re bringing this option to the table in a timely and proper manner. We have said to [local opposition groups] that if we are to start detailed work then they will be amongst the first to know. That’s why we are coming out and saying it.”
Brendon Sewill of GACC, the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign, said: “The option they have got does not make for a good airport, with no proper space for planes and a new terminal between them [the runways] – unless they’re demolishing part of Crawley.
“We are totally opposed on environmental grounds. I don’t believe a new runway will be built until Stansted is full, but it’s a long way off.”
“They’re putting their hat in the ring. They’ve said they want to sell the airport in 2018 so our guess is that they’re aiming to keep the price up for when they sell it rather than building a runway.”
Airline industry sources also questioned whether the intent was to elevate the airport’s value ahead of a sale.
John Stewart of Airport Watch said: “The local community will fight this proposal tooth and nail. It will be very difficult to get a new runway built anywhere in London and the south-east in this day and age given the level of local opposition that can be expected.”
A spokesman for the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said: “There is absolutely no point in simply scattering new runways randomly around the south-east. What this country urgently requires is a hub airport with several runways.”
Heathrow, likewise, said Gatwick’s new runway would not solve the issue of hub capacity. A spokesman said: “The UK is not short of point-to-point capacity provided by airports like Gatwick. What the UK is short of is hub airport capacity … the only way to support the frequent and direct long-haul routes that are vital to business and trade.”
AirportWatch comment on Gatwick plans for new runway
AirportWatch Communications Director Susan Pearson said:
“Strong opposition to any new runways will be inevitable – as the last Government found out.
“The experience of the last ten years shows there will be opposition from all the large environmental organisations across the country because of the climate change implications – more flights will scupper any chance chance of fulfilling our climate change targets.
“And there will always be local opposition – because of the increase in misery for those living under flight paths.
“Despite the aviation industry’s frantic marketing campaign, there is currently no urgent need to take decisions about airport capacity. The Government’s own figures show the UK has enough airport capacity until almost 2030. The Government must take its time and ensure future capacity needs are based on hard evidence, not on the continual lobbying of the aviation industry.”