With air traffic capacity at London Heathrow almost at breaking point, could a bold new proposal bring valuable breathing space for passengers, airlines and politicians alike? TIM ROBINSON reports.
This is a full article published in Aerospace International: June 2012
The roar of Typhoons practising anti-terror interceptions from RAF Northolt in north west London may be a novelty to most Londoners but, it has also acted as a reminder that there exists another airfield within the M25 ring that is capable of supporting jet aircraft. But could this military base have a new lease of life as a relief airport for a packed Heathrow?
RAF Northolt, of course, is well known as the home of the Queen’s 32 (Royal) Squadron as well as an entry point for visiting heads of state and VIPs using ‘business jet’ sized aircraft. It also hosts a detachment of ‘special purpose’ aircraft — whose true function and capabilities are not openly discussed. In WW2 it was also a fighter station — hosting the famous Polish 303 Squadron — the highest scoring RAF Squadron in the Battle of Britain. However, despite its proximity to central and west London, its short runway and royal connections have so far undone any previous attempts to broaden its usage or suggest alternative uses, although, interestingly enough, during the construction of Heathrow, Northolt saw civil airliner operations. Significantly, though apart from the current Olympic QRA, it is underutilised, despite being in the prime west London catchment zone.
The reason for that is not hard to find. Its 1,687m runway, experts, including the CAA say, is not only too short for modern airliners (A Pan Am Boeing 707 just scraped in there in 1960 by accident) but also its runway heading of 25 would set any westbound departures directly into the busy traffic stream from Heathrow — an air traffic controllers’ nightmare. So that rules out any option of Northolt as a civil airport — or does it?
However, a new proposal from a company called Rothwell Aviation may have found a way round this — potentially unlocking extra runway capacity (almost) within a stone’s throw (six miles) of LHR. Rothwell’s plan is to lengthen the runway to 2,400m and simultaneously re-orient it to run east-west — parallel with Heathrow’s twin runways. A lengthened runway would allow jet airliners up to the size of 737s or A320s into the airport, while changing the heading would mean a straightforward integration with Heathrow’s existing traffic and approaches. Discussions with ATM experts have already confirmed that this is a feasible option, say the company. In essence this plan would effectively grant Heathrow a virtual ‘third runway’ nearby for domestic traffic. By doing this, Northolt would be able to handle 20% of Heathrow’s traffic capacity, Rothwell predicts and become, in effect, part of the Heathrow Airport operational ‘system’.
With some domestic and short-haul traffic offloaded on to Northolt, Heathrow would be freed up for more long-haul international flights and would gain a valuable breathing space compared to its current operations where it strains at 98% capacity and any stoppages inevitably have a massive ripple effect through operations. It is also important to note that increasing efficiency and creating extra capacity in this way, would not only smooth bad-tempered passengers caught in a another stack over a holding point but it would also contribute to lowering emissions by reducing delays.
The two airports would be connected via a high-speed rail link to transfer passengers between airports in 15 minutes. Additionally, the existing underground link could be used to deliver passengers straight into central London. Most attractively of all in these austerity times, all this could be privately financed, at no cost to Government, whilst providing additional revenue to MoD and the Treasury, says Rothwell.
An agnostic solution
Interestingly, Rothwell says its interim Northolt proposal is agnostic to whichever final solution for SE England’s capacity crunch is chosen by the Government — whether it is a Thames Estuary Airport, or even a third runway at Heathrow. Adopting this concept, it argues, will give the necessary extra critical capacity while other options are planned, debated, approved and finally constructed. Rothwell estimates that it could be completed within four years if the go-ahead was given immediately — vastly quicker than any long-term engineering project like Boris Island.
Nor is this proposal a case of wishful thinking from the rose-tinted spectacles brigade. Rothwell Aviation is made up of an experienced team, consisting of a former RAF Northolt station commander Gerry Bunn, CBE, a former chairman of Hunting Aviation, Gordon Williams and William Charnock, former managing director of London City Airport. Rothwell also has solid financial backing in the form of aviation financier John Sharman, executive director of Spectrum Capital. The team so far have been quietly briefing stakeholders, decision makers and potential private investors — many of whom have responded extremely positively.
The company also say that this extra capacity and its closeness to LHR would lure airlines out to relocate their short-haul traffic to Northolt and also give BAA the opportunity to market Heathrow as a better, dedicated international hub. It points to London City which, despite its challenging operational and environmental location (middle of a city, near high rise skyscrapers), has proved a hit with business travellers because it is so convenient and saves time.
Revamped military airbase
One obvious question about Northolt would be what to do about the RAF’s military presence. However, Rothwell say that even if a new passenger terminal was created, a military ‘enclave’ could be retained for the Queen’s Squadron and for any other VIP or government flights. Though the idea of civil and military aircraft sharing an airport may be novel in the UK, elsewhere in the world the two do co-exist quite happily. Furthermore, say Rothwell, the military will get a revamped, resurfaced and longer runway upgraded to the latest civil standards completely free of charge. Given that other ideas for Northolt have revolved around selling the land off for housing, it is significant that this proposal would still allow the RAF to retain this key inner London asset, and preserve some of its significance as an airfield that dates back to 1915.
There is no doubt that even if argued as not being a new runway — a re-orientation of the existing one at Northolt would inevitably bring out some local opposition to the scheme — (although the recent example of Southend’s new terminal has shown that not all local residents are irrecoverably hostile to any airport expansion). While some local opposition could be anticipated, it is also noteworthy that it would be on a scale far smaller than HS2 or any third runway at LHR.
The rail link, too, would need to be reliable, fast and a highly efficient service to transfer passengers and luggage between Heathrow’s international and Northolt’s domestic services — a feature that other established UK airports still struggle with. The idea of a rail link joining two airports also scuppered the idea of ‘Heathwick’ that was briefly mooted — and discarded last year.
Using Northolt as a relief airport for Heathrow was apparently also discounted by studies done by Mott MacDonald and Ernst & Young. However, Rothwell say that neither Mott MacDonald or E&Y spoke to it about its specific proposal.
A changed political climate?
One thing now in Rothwell’s favour is that, since taking office in 2008, the UK Coalition Government may have quietly realised that attempting to ignore the capacity crunch issue has now become impossible. Regular delays, and a growing crescendo of business leaders calling for better links to trade has focused the argument. Indeed the way in which the London Mayor’s ‘Boris Island’ plan has been given serious thought, along with pronouncements in the recent budget speech lead some to believe that air travel capacity has now edged up the Governments list of priorities — which should become clearer with the publication of its aviation report this summer.
Has the situation become so critical that Government could be persuaded that radical steps are the only way to prevent Heathrow’s decline and eventual fall? The experience of the T5 inquiry, some also argue, has shown the ludicrous way in which the UK was effectively held hostage with its main hub over a single terminal — while continental airport rivals were able to add multiple runways in the same period. Heathrow, it is argued, is already in decline compared to other airports, having lost some 30% of its destinations in the past five years.
Additionally, some note, the need to free up capacity at Heathrow to far-away emerging BRIC countries to access new markets to quickly stimulate growth — means there is an extra incentive that was not there before. A survey of business leaders from Brazil, India, China, Mexico and South Korea found 92% saying direct flights were critical for inward investment and 62% would only invest in the UK if air connectivity was improved. Though the UK Government has boxed itself into a corner with its electoral promise of ‘no third runway’ at Heathrow, some observers believe it is only a matter of time before Whitehall has to rethink this. Yet the problem is with us now.
In summary, the search for a solution to the capacity crunch now affecting Heathrow and SE England has thrown up all manner of answers — from boosting regional airports, to a giant eight-runway megahub in the Thames, some of which will be debated at a forthcoming RAeS Seminar (Airport Capacity Crisis, 21 June) later this month. However, as this magazine has pointed out before, time is now of the essence in any attempt to stem the decline and the clock is ticking.
While using Northolt as an interim solution to deal with overflow may not be ideal — it would allow for Heathrow to operate a ‘virtual’ third runway and reduce some of the immense pressure on it. Leaving the situation ‘as is’ and taking no action is a recipe for gridlock at the UK’s busiest airport and decline — which Rothwell describes as ‘economic suicide’ for the UK.
However, by using an existing runway, Northolt neatly sidesteps the Government’s promise of no new runways and allows time to decide on what the real long-term solution should be. Crucially, it would also boost the ecomomy with extra jobs created in both the construction and then the operation of this interim airport. While 1940 presented a far different and darker threat to the UK — it may be that in today’s air battle over capacity, Northolt has another ‘finest hour’ ahead of it.
On 21 June the RAeS will be running ‘Airport Capacity Crisis’ a special half-day seminar on SE England aviation issues. For more details contact the RAeS Conference and Events Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aerospace International Contents - June 2012
News Roundup – p4
Mini-weapons – the next revolution p 12
mini and micro launched air weapons
North by Northolt p 16
A new London Airport at RAF Northolt
Space tourism - no longer a flight of fancy - p 18
An overview of suborbital tourism
Training as suborbital scientist- p 22
The Zero-G training experience
New lease of life - p 26
Good times for the aircraft leasing industry?
Bird strikes – what are the risks? p 30
The risk from birds at a future Thames Estuary airport
Letters - p 33
Orbital solar power – coming sooner and civil UAS – from the 1970s
The last word – p 35
Keith Hayward on US access to the International Space Station
This is a full article published in Aerospace International: May 2012. As a member, you recieve two new Royal Aeronautical Society publications each month – find out more about membership.