Professor Keith Hayward, the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Head of Research offers his commentary on the growing pressure to resolve London’s airport capacity issues.
Just like Dracula, always rising from the dead unless you can drive a wooden stake through his heart, Heathrow’s third runway is edging back into the frame. Declared out of play by most of the political parties at the last election, and by both arms of the Coalition Government since, the search for a solution to London’s airport capacity problem (crisis?) lurched eastwards.
With some flair and more considered analysis, the outgoing London Mayor, Boris Johnson proposed an all new Thames Estuary solution – Boris Island. Lord Foster piled in behind with a similar concept on a different shore. The Mayor declared either option would suit – he too did not want any more planes over west London. His opponent, by the way, is against any form of expansion. And for good measure, the current Transport Secretary’s constituency is under the LHR flight path.
The case for doing something is pretty solid. Airports are necessary to sustain economic growth, and especially so for a global city such as London. LHR’s lack of resilience is well documented. And with airlines reluctant to shift profitable North Atlantic routes to launch speculative links with airports in China and other emerging centres for the greater good, there is a growing fear that London will be relegated to a lower division of economic prosperity.
According to a World Bank research paper, the UK is ranked 9th in world connectivity terms – behind France, Holland and the likes of Belgium and Luxembourg. Germany is 3rd behind the US and Canada. Now given that there are some oddities in this list, and some are clearly dominated by short haul activity, this ranking has to be treated with some caution (it is also based on a brain hurting mathematical analysis). LHR is still the world’s third busiest international airport. However, the qualitative impact on London’s and the SE of England’s local economy if its connectivity were to slip further could be very damaging.
‘Boris Island’ has attracted some positive vibes from the Prime Minister. Consideration of it and other alternatives will be included in the now postponed UK White paper on Civil Aviation. The island airport concept has attracted some traction as an ‘infrastructure investment’ ideally suited to catalysing economic growth in a recession. Building extra runways at Gatwick and Stansted, also ruled out in earlier policy documents, could also provide some relief.
An interesting new entrant comes from proponents of RAF Northolt, a few miles north of LHR. Linked by high speed rail, it could act as relatively cheap and quick simulacrum for LHR3 as an interim solution. However, it will inevitably attract the same anti-expansion coalition as LHR has traditionally faced.
It not as if London is short of runways – there are seven within an hour’s travel time from down town. The trouble is that they are at six different locations and travelling to and especially between can be a miserable or expensive business. This is an echo of the way the London tube system came together – little planning and too much free market, leaving some very strange patterns in the original grid. Analysis sponsored by the Mayor’s office suggests that London is already in danger of losing the critical mass of connections on which a hub depends.
However, an Estuary solution – and there are problems associated with such a site, including cost, access from other parts of the UK, birds, and a sunken WW2 explosives ship – is a long term answer to a current problem. No duty free is likely to be sold before the late 2020s at the very earliest, and really five years is tops before the decline sets in with a vengeance.
Hence there has been some pretty heavy lobbying from the likes of the London Chamber of Commerce, the Institute of Directors the CBI and other worthies to rethink the LHR third runway decision, or at least to put it on a par with other solutions and Virgin Atlantic and British Airways are backing Heathrow expansion. BAA, the owners of LHR, have also been mounting a campaign to outflank prospects of a questionable £50 billion investment down river.
The forthcoming review will probably continue to exclude the LHR3 option, but water is dripping on the block of ice and the Heathrow lobby may yet win at a least a review of a third runway. The key question remains crudely political – airports are toxic issues, and lots of politicians would face testing times in 2015, the likely date of the next election. So do not hold your breath for a speedy decision – the earliest we are likely to get anything like a set of realistic options will be three years hence.
I’m afraid to say that this, but the most likely response will be to seek planning permission for new runways at Gatwick and or Stansted. Given the promises made to rule out new developments until the 2020s, even this will slip into the medium to long term. There might be some blurring of a start date, but this would still be no answer to the current problem. British Governments have often struggled to meet complex strategic needs – and London’s airport saga is potentially a classic case.
Read Professor Hayward’s incisive analysis of the aerospace industry every month in Aerospace International magazine.
Interested in this subject? The Royal Aeronautical Society will be organising a high-level seminar on this issue later this year. Stay tuned to Aerosociety.com for details.