London airports’ PR battle heats up

Terry Farrell plans for expansion at Gatwick Airport- 2 runways

Gatwick airport’s proposed design for two runways

London’s two main airports are fighting to win public support ahead of an imminent decision on whether Heathrow or Gatwick should benefit from extra capacity to solve the southeast’s capacity crunch.

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, has even raised the possibility that Gatwick may be promoting a second runway simply to stymie his own plans for a third.

“Some people I talk to would say, of course, they [Gatwick] never mean to do anything anyway; they just want to stop us expanding,” he said. “I have no idea.”


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The comments, dismissed as “disingenuous nonsense” by Gatwick, demonstrate how tensions are rising ahead of the publication of the independent Davies Commission into Britain’s aviation capacity.

The commission will this summer recommend its preferred location for a new runway, with all three shortlisted options either at Heathrow or Gatwick.

The two airports have spent millions of pounds on rival campaigns involving marketing, public relations and lobbying.

The Gatwick adverts have focused on the environmental impact of the third Heathrow runway — and the impact of noise on 320,00 people.

Mr Holland-Kaye accused his rival of a “negative” campaign designed simply to stop the third Heathrow runway.

“I don’t know whether they’re doing that because they think politically that’s the best way to stop our momentum,” he said. “Or whether they think that actually from an economic point of view they are best served by nothing happening.”

Gatwick said its management was “intensely serious” about a second runway and denied that its campaign had been negative.

For the past year the two airports have taken out lavish adverts in the press and online as well as billboards and posters in prominent places — including the entrance to the House of Commons.

Heathrow even targeted Ukip’s spring conference in Margate with a full-page advert in the schedule.

Gatwick, Britain’s second-busiest airport, launched its campaign a year ago in the Shard, Britain’s highest skyscraper. It has spent more than £10m on the campaign, including on design fees and consultancy, to prepare submissions and advertising.

It has sought to pitch itself as a “challenger brand”, comparable with Virgin Atlantic taking on British Airways.

“In this instance the best way to make a lot of noise is not to shout,” said Dan Shute, managing director of Creature, the agency behind Gatwick’s campaign.

Gatwick has had three public relations firms on board — Fishburn, Charlotte St and LCA — while Heathrow has used Portland and Blue Rubicon.

The approach of Heathrow, which has not disclosed its expenditure, has been nationalistic, emphasising the UK’s global status.

Both airports are expected to step up their marketing spending in the run-up to the election.

Anti-expansion campaigners have written to the Davies commission criticising the amount spent on the campaigns, claiming they are “subverting democracy”.

Louise Ellman, chairman of the transport select committee, said it had been a very “intensive” and “hard” campaign by both sides. “I hope Davies disregards the marketing campaign and sticks to the facts.”

There have been claims of “dirty tricks” against both sides. Anti-Heathrow campaigners have orchestrated automatic complaints against noise. This was discovered when the digital complaints, not adjusted when the clocks went back in October, were sent before the aircraft took off.

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Likewise Gatwick has criticised a community support campaign called “Back Heathrow” — partially funded by the airport — for activities such as carrying out surveys implying that the only choice is between “expansion and closure”.

Heathrow said it had always been open about the fact that it helped fund Back Heathrow to provide a voice for thousands of local supporters.

“Recent surveys of local opinion show how they have been able to generate support essentially by scaremongering and, for example, setting up the entirely false choice between expansion and closure,” Gatwick complained.

Sir Roy McNulty, chairman of Gatwick, said it was “not unprecedented” to see allegations of dirty tricks in such circumstances.

But he said it was not the most negative competition he had seen in his long business career. “This is not a PR battle,” he said. “This is primarily a battle which will be won and lost on the analysis of these factors.”

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