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Davies report on airport capacity must be brought forward, Heathrow boss says

A Government-commissioned report which will consider how the UK can retain its status as a global aviation hub represents the UK's "best shot" at resolving capacity constraints, the head of Heathrow Airport has said.18 Feb 2013

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph Colin Matthews, chief executive of the UK's largest airport, called on Sir Howard Davies' independent commission to act quickly in order to tackle increasing "competitive pressure" between Heathrow and other European hub airports.

The interview was published a few days after campaigners and politicians wrote to the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, to encourage him to bring forward the 2015 publication date for Davies' final report. However, a Department for Transport spokesperson told the BBC that Davies' recommendations, which could include the expansion of existing airports or the construction of a new 'hub' in the Thames Estuary, could not be "rushed".

In the interview, Matthews told the Telegraph that his "willingness" to await the outcome of the Davies report before making his ambitions for Heathrow clear should not be confused with a "relaxed" attitude to competition for capacity from outside the UK.

"I'm not really [relaxed] because in the meantime Dubai and Istanbul are putting in big hub capacity," he told the paper. "That will, over time, shift the flows of international traffic away from Europe, and the competitive pressure between Heathrow and other European hubs will increase. The question at some stage will be not so much 'shall be have two [hubs in the UK]?' but 'how on earth are we going to be sure we have one at all?'."

As announced by the Government in September, economist Sir Howard Davies is leading an independent commission tasked with considering how the UK can retain its status as a global aviation hub. The Commission will report on the need for additional capacity and how quickly, and set out how that need should be met in the short, medium and long term. Davies is due to present his interim report by the end of this year, with a final report due by summer 2015.

The Government cancelled plans for a proposed third runway at Heathrow when it took office in 2009 but has acknowledged the need for an alternative, which could include a new airport in the Thames Estuary or additional runways at Heathrow and Gatwick. Passenger demand for London's airports is forecast to increase from 140 million a year in 2012 to 400 million passengers a year by 2050, according to a report by the Greater London Authority.

In their joint letter to the Transport Secretary (1-page / 39KB PDF), politicians and campaigners with a variety of views welcomed the "broad thrust" of the Davies Commission, but called on the Government to bring forward the timing of the final report to before the next election. This year's interim report should also "lay out very clearly the direction of [Davies'] thinking", they said. Signatories included MPs and peers, the leaders of nine local authorities and campaign groups including Heathrow Campaign for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN ) and the No Third Runway Action Group (NoTRAG).

"We argue that such a lengthy period of uncertainty is not at all helpful to businesses seeking to make investment decisions or indeed the wider economy of the UK," the letter said. "Whilst we recognise the political sensitivities surrounding aviation policy, we believe that the electorate and particularly the residents of West London deserve to know what implications the Commission's recommendations will have on their lives."

Planning and aviation expert Jonathan Riley of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, acknowledged that 2015 seemed "a distant milestone when we're talking about a very immediate capacity programme". However, he pointed out that the work of the Davies Commission was well underway.

"The timetable released by the Airports Commission in the last fortnight is pretty aggressive and we'll start to see a lot of activity and structured public debate between the spring and the autumn," he said.

"It's also conceivable that their shortlist of credible proposals may contain options which would be delivered in combination, or that some voices step back from their own proposals and back another. We've already seen signs that Boris Johnson is relatively well-disposed to Stansted. In either of those scenarios, there would be fewer options to debate on the final approach – in which case there could be scope for the Commission's work to conclude substantially earlier than planned," he said.