BAA will be able to lobby for a third runway at Heathrow during consultation on how to preserve the UK’s status as a leading aviation hub, transport minister Theresa Villiers has confirmed.
She reiterated the government’s opposition to expansion of Heathrow but said the airport’s operator could lobby for a change of policy.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Villiers hit back at the government’s aviation critics, denying that the decision to reject the previous Labour administration’s plan for a third runway at Heathrow was a pitch to secure votes in west London, where residents object to aircraft noise.
She also rejected suggestions that ministers were being “slow” by not coming to a conclusion on how to respond to Britain’s hub airport capacity squeeze until the spring of next year.
The government has delayed a consultation document about airport capacity issues from March to the summer.
Villiers highlighted how the general election manifestos of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrat opposed a third runway at Heathrow, but said: “If BAA want to come along and argue for a different approach – of course we’ll consider their representations and the evidence that they submit.”
She said the government had to balance the needs of the economy with concerns about the environmental impact of aviation.
“We have to make a decision, as a government, based on the evidence of what’s best for our economy and UK plc,” she was quoted as saying.
“The commercial interest of BAA is one thing – it’s not necessarily the same as the economic needs of the overall economy. We have a wider picture to look at.”
While acknowledging that Heathrow was “very full”, Villiers questioned whether the UK was suffering from a capacity crunch.
She highlighted how British Airways, by combining with BMI and gaining new take-off and landing slots at Heathrow, was starting to provide new routes to Asia from the airport.
Villiers said the aviation industry needed to consider whether some flights coming into Heathrow could land at other London-area airports with spare capacity, so that Heathrow could focus on destinations “with the greatest economic added value”.
“There’s a conversation to be had about how we can use our spare capacity in the south-east,” she said.