Heathrow operators can’t plan for the future



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When I originally compiled this blog on 12 November, the government announcement about a third Heathrow runway was officially due within the week. That decision, announced today (15 January), to approve the third runway and sixth terminal, was delayed for reasons that were made to sound environmentally serious, but actually the real reason was that the government knew it was going to face a tsunami of protest, and it realised it had not yet marshalled its defensive arguments sufficiently well.

Even back in November it was more less certain that the UK government was going to give the green light to a third runway at Heathrow. An interim measure would have involved moving the two parallel runways to mixed-mode operation to make airport operations more flexible, reducing the delays that have become endemic there. But transport secretary Geoff Hoon has thrown the local communities a crumb of comfort by sacrificing mixed mode, to the chagrin of the airlines who saw it as an anticipated solution to Heathrow’s immediate and chronic traffic logjam The holding patterns around the London terminal area will remain full of circling aeroplanes.

But neither of these decisions, intended to provide the solution to Heathrow’s dire capacity problems are assured in the long run by Hoon’s announcement. Between today’s go-ahead announcement and the actual early work on creating the runway, a period of at least five years will elapse, and massive political and legal challenges will be mounted to reverse the decisions. What does that feel like to an airline like United (to pick just one carrier at random) which has paid as much as  £30 million for an additional take-off/landing slot there?

Meanwhile, during the autumn of last year, significant political realignment regarding the runway took place, and this may affect the timescale of what happens, though it is unlikely to affect the final outcome.

On 11 November, by coincidence, there were two separate – and very revealing – debates on closely related subjects: a parliamentary debate on the third runway issue, and simultaneously a debate at the UK Royal Aeronautical Society on whether the third Heathrow runway was the capacity solution for the UK’s south-east, or whether – alternatively - the country should finally take up an idea already rejected three times over a period of nearly 40 years: building a completely new airport in the Thames estuary area.

Not at either of the debates was a single absolutely original idea advanced. All the arguments about all the options for all airport solutions have been rehearsed a thousand times.  

But the Conservative Party which, if current voter polls are to believed, will be in government by 2010 at the latest, in Autumn last year decided to oppose the third runway – a completely new line for the Tories. It also says that it will reverse the third runway decision when/if it gets elected. The Conservatives’ solution is to build a network of high speed rail services that would eliminate the need for domestic slots at Heathow. But the party doesn’t put a date on achievement of this monumental project, nor address funding.

The effect of this policy realignment by the Conservatives – including London’s new mayor Boris Johnson - has been to galvanise the already formidable but disparate opposition to the third runway, giving them a banner to follow. Meanwhile Johnson has commissioned his own study into siting a new airport in the Thames estuary.

This is a bit of a nightmare for UK plc because of the uncertainty it creates. Nobody in any group denies Heathrow is essential to the national economy, but nobody loves it either. Not any more they don’t, because of its congestion-related vulnerability to delay and inability to meet demand.

Basically, back in 1962 it was realised that London and the South East needed a decent airport, and Heathrow was not it. A four-runway Stansted was the answer, the inquiry decided. But that was shelved. In the 1980s that prospect was revisited, approved and shelved again. Meanwhile there have been three Thames estuary sites examined and rejected: Foulness, Maplin Sands, and - since 2000 – Cliffe.

This is the story of Britain and its politics: make do and mend. Grand strategy is not on the menu – ever.

So what’s really going to happen in the long run? Based on history and my reading of UK political behaviour, there will almost certainly be - you guessed it - more “make do and mend”.

Stansted will get its government-approved second runway following a planning inquiry that is not able to stop it. Heathrow will get its third runway because, although it is environmentally the most disastrous option available – in that Heathrow growth affects more people on the ground than any of the other options - all the governments since 1962 have failed to take strategic decisions. This leaves any government in power right now or in the near future, no alternative except to approve it, or to see the UK’s economy seriously “changed”, which most businesses today would translate as “damaged”. Then, some time after 2020, Gatwick will get a second runway also.

Why not the estuary airport or high-speed railway network? Because they’ll take too long to deliver even if they were to work, and the latter is not a foregone conclusion. The best hope for the environment is that the high speed rail network will develop in parallel with the enlarged existing airports, but as someone at the RAeS debate said, the estuary idea is “a dead duck”. The coastal area is a massive haven for migratory birds, which provides  environmentalists with powerful ammunition to deploy against the project, and the birdstrike risk would be a disaster for aviation safety.

2 Responses to Heathrow operators can’t plan for the future

  1. Gill Moore 13 November, 2008 at 11:24 pm #

    Along with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Friends of the North Kent Marshes are wholly opposed to the construction of an airport anywhere in the Thames Estuary because of the immense damage it would cause to the area’s internationally important wildlife and the wider environment. The whole issue was exhaustively investigated between 2002 and 2005 in the Government’s Aviation White Paper. All the key players, including the aviation industry, contributed. The idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary was conclusively ruled out and upheld by the High Court. In addition to the unprecedented environmental damage and the resulting massive legal implications, the investigation found that an estuary airport did not make sense economically, would not meet the requirements of the aviation industry and presented a significantly higher risk of ‘bird strike’ than at any other major airport in the UK.

    • .It would potentially be the single biggest piece of environmental vandalism ever perpetrated in the UK. The Government would have to recreate any lost or damaged habitat elsewhere BEFORE work on the airport could start – and even then only if they could prove there is no alternative site for the expansion and it is in the overriding public interest. They would face a legal battle, which could last for years.

    • The Thames estuary contains one of the biggest arrays of internationally protected wildlife habitat – Special Protection Areas – in Europe. These protected areas stretch all down the estuary.

    • Every year, the wider estuarine complex is a hub for 300,000 migrant birds that rely on the area for feeding and roosting.

    • Any damage must be compensated for and there is nowhere in the Estuary or arguably in Europe where such large-scale damage could be compensated for adequately

    • Climate change remains the greatest threat to biodiversity and alongside the RSPB we believe that there should be no further airport expansion.

    • The construction of a massive new airport in the Thames Estuary will have impacts that extend far outside the immediate area. Emissions from aircraft remain (one of) the fastest increasing sources of greenhouse gases.

    • The demand for flights should be managed rather than just accepted as necessary.

    • In a low-lying area like the Thames Estuary, the threat of climate change is particularly significant and it is foolhardy to consider building an airport that would only contribute to the underlying problem.

    • The Government’s plans for the regeneration of the Thames Gateway are being promoted as low-carbon and stress the importance of green space and the natural environment as part of its success. An estuary airport would remove any possibility of the Thames Gateway being “low-carbon”.

    • An airport in the Thames Estuary would be massively expensive. Existing and planned transport infrastructure links are inadequate and would further add to the cost.

    Recent statements by London Mayor, Boris Johnson, suggesting that he would like an estuary airport, do nothing to alter any of these findings. The threats and the risks remain the same. An airport in the Thames Estuary is a complete non-starter ecologically, environmentally and economically

  2. layman 14 November, 2008 at 2:14 pm #

    Is it possible that the BA 777 near disaster has subconciously put the brakes on the 3rd runway? The fact that the jet barely missed some houses and the ring road must have place a nagging bit of doubt about Heathrow, surrounded by the mass of buildings. Do you really want more air traffic there?

    Surely the answer would be to add runways to Stanstead and Gatwick but simultaneously provide fast high speed links between all of London’s airports. If it were as simple and fast as moving from Heathrow’s Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 to say transfer from T5 to Gatwick or Stanstead, then the 3rd runway at Heathrow would not be needed.

    Another alternative would be to build a new airport somewhere on the Channel Tunnel line – say a place like Ashford. Travellers could then land in the UK but get to London on an existing high speed train. just a thought……