Leader comment: London airport expansion would benefit Scotland

Scotland would benefit from Heathrow becoming a superhub but '¨this could have a negative impact on attracting direct long-haul flights

The Scottish Government has to back the option that brings most benefit to Scotland.
The Scottish Government has to back the option that brings most benefit to Scotland.

There is no doubt that increasing the number of planes in the sky is harmful to the planet and risks efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming.

The Scottish Government has already come under fire from climate campaigners over plans to cut air passenger duty on flights from Scottish airports, which objectors say threatens efforts to achieve the nation’s world-leading carbon reduction targets.

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Adding more air journeys also adds to air pollution, which is estimated to cause seven million premature deaths every year worldwide.

So the decision to back proposals to add a third runway at Heathrow, bringing along with it an increase in the number of direct flights to and from Scotland, will attract heavy criticism from some quarters.

However, like it or not, it seems that expansion will go ahead and one of the options on the table will be pursued, with the UK government set to declare its preference this month.

There’s no easy answer here, no indisputable right or wrong between Heathrow and Gatwick. So the Scottish Government has had to choose which is best for the Scottish economy and citizens.

But has it backed the right horse? Those punting a second runway at Gatwick insist the Heathrow option will make Scotland more dependent on London and south-east England. That said, it’s easy to argue that picking Gatwick would do exactly the same.

But there is one important consideration here. Heathrow is an international travel hub, while Gatwick is not. Only five per cent of passengers landing in Gatwick transfer to another flight. And if Heathrow is to become a superhub with stronger connections to Scotland, improving our global connectivity, it could also harm the prospects of attracting more direct links between Scotland and the continent.

Passengers from Scotland might not relish the prospect of any extension at Heathrow either. Negotiating a way between terminals in the crowded airport can be an unpleasant and stressful experience.

Ministers are also likely to be attacked for trying to find a solution for the white elephant of Prestwick, which could become a logistics hub for Heathrow – whatever that would mean. Criticism may well be justified, but the Prestwick factor does not in itself make Heathrow the wrong answer. Had the Scottish Government opted for Gatwick, Prestwick would undoubtedly have been lumped into that plan as well. It’s a red herring in the debate.

Ultimately, the decision comes down to the issues that economy minister Keith Brown has highlighted: jobs, investment opportunities and potential benefit to all main Scottish airports, not just Glasgow and Edinburgh. If the Scottish Government’s negotiations demonstrate that Heathrow fares better than Gatwick on these fronts, then that option is indeed in Scotland’s best interests.