LONDON • British Airways' (BA) parent group has threatened to develop the business abroad rather than in Britain after the government further delayed a decision on expanding airport capacity.
Prime Minister David Cameron had promised a decision on where to expand airport capacity in south- east England by the end of the year, but last week said no decision would be taken until at least the middle of next year.
Business chiefs have lobbied for a third runway at London's Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, and British Chambers of Commerce director-general John Longworth condemned the delay as "gutless".
British Airways parent IAG said it was an ego-driven decision after Mr Cameron's pledge five years ago to block the hub's expansion. "We have compromised and compromised and compromised to satisfy a political agenda that makes our industry inefficient," IAG chief executive officer Willie Walsh said.
"If the government continues to dither over a new runway, then I'll move my business elsewhere," Mr Walsh wrote in Britain's Daily Mail on Monday. "We now have airlines in Dublin and Madrid, and can expand our business there, supporting the strengthening Irish and Spanish economies." Irish carrier Aer Lingus and Spain's Iberia are part of IAG.
The Board of Airline Representatives in Britain, which represents more than 70 scheduled carriers, said it was "dismayed" at the government's "uncertainty and indecision", and that the motivation appeared to be "local political reasons" rather than a cited need for further environmental analysis.
While in opposition in 2009, Mr Cameron had opposed a third runway for Heathrow, saying "no ifs, no buts". However, a commission on boosting British air capacity later recommended he do so. A U-turn would be embarrassing for his government, and also poses further risks given that a prominent member of his party has threatened to resign should a third runway be built.
Mr Zac Goldsmith, who represents a constituency near Heathrow, is running for London mayor in elections next year, and his resignation would trigger a by-election that could turn into a referendum on Heathrow's expansion.
"Politicians have no accountability. They're not interested in making decisions that will benefit the country if it's likely they'll lose votes over it," Mr Walsh said.
Heathrow lost its crown as the world's busiest airport for international passenger traffic to Dubai last year.
Environmentalists and those living near Heathrow are fiercely opposed to its expansion; hundreds of homes would have to go, and the extra traffic could mean Britain misses emission targets.
Heathrow and Britain's second- biggest airport Gatwick are close to maximum capacity.
"This is not just fighting talk - we have the practical ability to expand elsewhere," Mr Walsh said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG