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While the freight and business communities warmly welcomed the UK Airport Commission recommendations for a third runway at Heathrow, airlines have shown more antipathy, amid suggestions there would be at least £31bn of lost trade before it is built.

At yesterday’s RunwaysUK event in London, Tony Tyler, director general of IATA, admitted he had “serious reservations” over conditions attached to the recommendation.

Arguing that instead of simply accepting the conditions – added to reduce complaints concerning environmental issues and noise – the industry should look to best practice at airports elsewhere to help mitigate the negative impacts of expansion.

The night flight ban between 11.30pm and 6am was of particular concern, he said. It would “weaken Heathrow’s attractiveness as a hub”, he added.

“The restriction is an overly prescriptive solution when other, better options — possibly with operational measures — may exist.”

While IAG came under some fire from delegates for its absence and resounding silence on the Airport Commission’s report – some questioning whether it was afraid of the additional competition expansion would bring – both easyJet and IATA set out their stand on the recommendation for the ‘pre-funding’ of the new runway.

“Would any of you in this room be willing to pay tolls for a road or bridge that is not yet built? I think not,” said Mr Tyler. “So why should users of Heathrow today be paying for infrastructure that will only be available several years from now?

“From the airlines’ point of view, it is even more egregious. Pre-funding would mean that airlines serving Heathrow today would foot the bill for new competitors to come into the market. In what other industry would something like that even be considered?”

EasyJet’s UK director, Sophie Dekkers, revealed that the low-cost carrier, which currently does not operate from Heathrow, was planning to put up to 30 aircraft there if the third runway was built.

“EasyJet strongly opposes asking passengers for pre-funding,” she said. “Yes, we could let other airlines pay in advance – but it’s not the right thing to do. Airports should seek private finance.”

The airline bodies sounded one of the few notes of discord at the event. Most speakers expressed strong support for the new capacity – even the anti-Heathrow-expansion group said the conditions in the report did mitigate some concerns.

Heathrow itself would not be drawn on whether the conditions were acceptable. They also require the airport to come up with £1bn to ease community relations, an increase on the £700m it had proposed.

Speaking for the first time since the report was published, CEO John Holland-Kaye said the airport was still assessing it, but “I’m sure there is a package we can agree on”.

He noted that the airport would double its cargo handling facilities, and hoped to add connections to manufacturing bases such as Chongqing.

Despite widespread support of the plan – which will involve the demolition of more than 700 houses – Lord Adonis, a former minster for transport, warned that politically there would be problems as government was divided.

“The choice now is not between Heathrow or Gatwick, it’s between action or inaction. And inaction is very easy.”

He added that the government’s rather weak promise to have read the report by autumn could easily change. In politics, he said, ‘autumn’ is a very flexible time that can can very often run into the next year.

“My last, optimistic judgment is that at some point in the next 15 or 20 years there will be another runway in the south east, and it will probably come in the spirit of crisis.”

Sir Howard Davies, author of the report, said: “The ball, having bounced on my side of the net, has now landed firmly back in the government’s court.”

Recommending an early decision, he warned: “They should recognise that this has become a touchstone of significance around the world [with the international community saying] ‘the UK is not ready to make the decision necessary to make it a global leader’. So why should people invest in London? The stakes are pretty high in terms of making a decision.”

The managing director of Harrods department store, Michael Ward, noted that Asia has 50% more flights into Paris than London, and Asians spent eight times as much in France as a result, while trade between the two countries was 20 times higher.

“Let people who want to trade with the UK do so. We have to hold the government’s feet to the fire.”

The CBI calculated that the UK would miss out on £31bn in trade with BRIC countries alone in the time it takes to build a runway – even if the decision was made now.

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