Here’s why Britain’s tedious runway debate really matters for investors

A report into airport expansion has recommended a new runway in southeast England. Matthew Partridge looks at the best way for investors to cash in.


The report recommends a new runway at Heathrow

Britain has spent literally decades to-ing and fro-ing on the issue of airport expansion.

Gatwick and Heathrow have been competing to host a new runway. Boris Johnson chipped in with Boris Island' an airport in the Thames Estuary while others suggest we should expand regional airports, such as Birmingham.

In the end, the latest report on the topic the Davies report spent an awful lot of money to add very, very little to the debate. It decided this week that expanding Heathrow was probably the best bet. But Gatwick might be OK too.

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You can see that there's a good chance that nothing at all will get built.

But believe it or not, this whole debate should be of great interest to investors here's why.

Here's what really matters about the airport expansiondebate

Air travel is very much a growing business. And in these days where one of the greatest big picture' fears is of the world slipping into long-term economic stagnation, that's not to be sniffed at.

Of course, the sector is also famously a complete nightmare for investors. Take the last 15 years for example. The September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, along with the recession, hurt passenger numbers.

High and rising oil prices for most of that time have also given airlines a tough ride. The financial crisis hurt too, as firms cut back on business trips and everyone briefly believed that video conferencing's time had come.

The likes of Sars, swine flu and Ebola have at various points even led to fears that global air travel would have to be curtailed to prevent deadly diseases spreading around the globe.

Yet beyond these short-term problems, ever more people are travelling by air. The World Bank reckons that passenger numbers have more than doubled between 1999 and 2014 a growth rate of around 5% a year. Experts believe that this will continue in the short and medium term.

Rising incomes in developing countries have swelled the ranks of the global middle class, creating a whole new group of people who want to take holidays abroad, and experience other cultures.

Globalisation has also boosted business travel. Email and Skype still can't seem to replace face-to-face contact with staff and partners in other countries.

This is one key reason behind the desire to expand British airport capacity. Politicians and business leaders reckon that a lack of top-quality airports could end up hitting external trade and foreign investment.

As the Davies report puts it: "Air travel is also crucial to supporting UK businesses and the wider economy" and "drives business innovation and investment". It even estimated that Heathrow would contribute an additional £150bn to economic growth.

An airport buildingboom is already underway

And while tourism is certainly a big employer in London, it's not enough alone to justify the billions in taxpayer support that most people seem to believe Heathrow requires.

But the truth is that it doesn't matter whether or not airport capacity really boosts the economy politicians believe that it does. And as a result, countries all over the world have been pumping large sums of money into the sector.

China is expected to build more than 100 new major airports in the next 15 years. Turkey is upgrading Istanbul airport, so that it has around four times the current capacity of Heathrow. Four of the major US airports Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago have recently spent fortunes upgrading their facilities. And overall, KPMG reckons that 50 new runways will be built in the world's largest cities within the next two decades including eight more in Beijing and four in Dubai.

Forget airlines or construction companies these are the stocks to buy

And there's no guarantee that this glut of airports will end up getting the customers they hope for. You just need to look at some of the redundant infrastructure built off the back of overly-generous government grants in the eurozone in recent years to see how that can turn out.

But there's one sector that can benefit, almost regardless the companies that provide services to airports and airlines. I'll be looking at the stocks best-placed to profit in next week's issue of MoneyWeek magazine. If you're not already a subscriber, you can get your first four issues free here.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri