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Airlines boss slams Thames Estuary airport plan

Plans for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary were slammed last night by International Airlines Group chief executive Willie Walsh

He said the proposals were unfundable and would meet with fierce resistance from those wishing to keep Heathrow open, reported sister title New Civil Engineer.

Earlier this month, Foster and Partners with Halcrow revealed self-funded plans for a new airport on the Isle of Grain which could feature four runways, cost £50 billion and operate 24 hours a day.

‘I’ve never been a fan of Boris Island,’ Walsh said, using the nickname given to the Estuary hub after it won the support of London mayor Boris Johnson. ‘From a technical point of view it’s brilliant. The big concern is how it’s financed,’ he said.

‘I don’t see private investors being interested given the realistic cost of building the airport and all the infrastructure around it is going to be £50bn-£60 billionn. The massive financial cost is a big challenge.’

Walsh also warned that opposition to the hub airport plan would be fierce.

‘It can only succeed if you closed Heathrow,’ he said. ‘Experience shows that hub airports only work if you close the existing airports.

‘And if you think there was a big battle around the third runway at Heathrow, then you’re in for a surprise because that was nothing compared to the battle you would have over closing Heathrow completely.’

Walsh, whose company owns British Airways and Iberia, said expansion of Gatwick airport was now the most likely way to meet capacity needs in the south east. The airport’s agreement with the local authorities in the area not to develop additional runway capacity expires in 2019.

‘I suspect the answer to the south east’s capacity needs will be Gatwick,’ he said. ‘But it is not going to address the UK’s slippage in its global position because a hub airport is so important.’

Walsh, speaking at the URS prestige transport lecture at the ICE, said that the airline industry and the UK economy at large was being ‘challenged by political mistakes’. These include the coalition government’s decision to block development of a third runway at Heathrow, he said. Chancellor George Osborne once again explicitly ruled out the expansion of Heathrow in this week’s Autumn Statement, whilst saying the government was committed to working with the aviation industry to maintain the UK’s hub status.

‘I fully accept that the opportunity for a third runway at Heathrow is gone. But it is a scandal that the government has no policy in aviation and won’t until 2013,’ he said.

He also said government should follow the lead of the Netherlands by scrapping Air Passenger Duty, which he described as a ‘damaging’ tax to the UK economy. Osborne made no moves to do this in his Autumn Statement.

Walsh said he supported high speed rail and that his firm would stop flying between London and Manchester if a direct high speed link was built.

‘We have openly supported High Speed 2, and if we had it I would stop flying London to Manchester.

‘But it has to be properly connected to Heathrow,’ he said.

He also cautioned over the long timescales involved.

‘You have got to remember that it will be 2026 before HS2 gets to Birmingham and 2032 before it gets to Manchester, so it is a long way away.’

His comments came in the same week Norman Foster delivered a lecture on his £50 billion Thames Hub airport proposal for the Thames Estuary.

On Tuesday, Foster welcomed the government’s ‘very encouraging’ announcement it will investigate ways to expand airport capacity in the south East.

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