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Shruti Tripathi: Political dithering has made Heathrow lose its place as world's busiest airport

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Why is the UK dragging its feet? Asks our Associate editor

A third runway at Heathrow? A second runway at Gatwick? An airport in the Thames Estuary?

While UK politicians have been busy bickering like little girls over whose airport plans are better, Heathrow has lost its crown as the world’s busiest airport to Dubai.

This marks the end of a 350-year period in which Britain has been home to either the world’s busiest port or airport.

Take a look at the stats:

Dubai airport saw more than 12 million international passengers in the first two months of the year, compared to 10 million at Heathrow in the same period.

In March, Heathrow hosted 5.8 million passengers, down 2.8% on the same month a year earlier.

Why the downfall? Heathrow is operating at 98% of its capacity and our politicians are in no mood to map out a clear aviation strategy.

A commission led by economist Sir Howard Davies has been considering options for expanding the UK’s airports since 2012. The report shortlisted three options for expanding UK airport capacity last year: a third runway at Heathrow, a second runway at Gatwick, and lengthening an existing runway at Heathrow.

But the final recommendations are due only in 2015.

At a time when we’re facing fierce competition from Frankfurt, Dubai and Paris airports, can we afford to wait for so long to come up with a plan?

I completely agree with Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG, who blamed politicians’ indecision for Heathrow being beaten by Dubai airport.

“We have squandered our No 1 world ranking through a total lack of political vision for Britain,” he said.

A third runway at Heathrow seems to be the most cost-effective of the rafts of plans doing the rounds. While building a third runway is expected to cost between £17bn, London Mayor Boris Johnson’s vision of building an airport in the Thames Estuary would cost £112bn.

Boris has also been banging on about shutting Heathrow down and partnering with the airport’s owners to develop a brand new hub in the Thames Estuary. That’s a ridiculous plan. Why? Over 114,000 people would lose their jobs if Heathrow was forced to close.

Businesses around the world too have called for Heathrow expansion. Earlier this month, the European boss of US-based Delta Air Lines Perry Cantarutti said Heathrow expansion is the need of the hour as “business travellers prefer it”.

“Gatwick serves a purpose for leisure travellers, it has a viable traffic base, and given the size and complexity of travelling across London, there are clearly some people who prefer to fly out of it,” Cantarutti said. “But it’s Heathrow that needs extra capacity; the reality is that business travellers prefer to go via Heathrow.”

Last year property investment giant Segro, which owns £1.2bn assets around Heathrow, polled 77 businesses employing 18,000 people to find out a solution for our airport capacity problem. More than 80% voted in favour of expanding Heathrow with a third saying capacity issues are affecting their business growth.

Alarmingly, half said they would relocate if Britain’s hub airport was moved to the Thames Estuary.

For years Heathrow has been regarded as an airport connecting global markets. Ignoring Heathrow in favour of other airport capacity solutions will cost us our reputation as an attractive country in which to do business. Is it worth taking that risk?

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