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Heathrow is vital to the future of long-haul air travel to and from Britain, the airport’s boss told MPs tonight.

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Colin Matthews, Heathrow’s chief executive, told the House of Commons Transport Committee that only Heathrow, as a hub airport, can provide the transfer facilities to enable around 75 long-haul flights to continue.

He added that the west London airport had lacked the necessary capacity “for some 10 years” and that he had had to tell some international airlines there was no room for them at Heathrow.

China Southern, one of the world’s biggest airlines, tried for eight years to come to Heathrow and was only recently able to start flights to the UK, Mr Matthews said.

Mr Matthews said: “Airlines would choose Heathrow if they could. Unfortunately they are forced out, and choose other airports.”

The heads of three other airports in the south east - Gatwick, Stansted and Luton - told the committee there was spare capacity at their sites.

Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said that in the long term there will be a need for extra capacity and he envisaged a second runway at Gatwick and a second runway at Stansted.

Asked about the so-called “Boris island” Thames Estuary airport scheme championed by London Mayor Boris Johnson, Mr Wingate said: “Estimates suggest it could cost between £50billion and £80b. We don’t see it as a deliverable solution.”

Stansted managing director Nick Barton told MPs his airport was only around half full, while Luton’s managing director Glyn Jones said more peak-time capacity was needed at his airport.

Mr Jones went on: “Resilience is an issue. If you are operating at 95% of capacity and something goes wrong, it goes badly wrong.”

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