Reach for the skies

The prevailing view is that the UK needs more airport capacity, preferably in someone else’s back garden. But not everyone likes planes. Is the right answer joined-up thinking on existing capacity, or a major new air hub? The Government is being urged to act very urgently, explains Jon Herbert.

Caught between the clouds and a hard place, the Government has asked Sir Howard Davies to take a long hard look at aviation capacity while under pressure from business — including London Mayor Boris Johnson — to “stop dithering” and be bold before the UK loses out to European air competition.

Under very different circumstances, Britain once had a very clear joined-up air policy. In 1944, the country was, in effect, a gigantic aircraft carrier moored off the coast of mainland Europe.

Then, an integrated chain of aerodromes, including one near the peaceful Middlesex hamlet of Heathrow, brought fliers from many nations together in “big wings” over Britain.

They formed a strategy air fleet that managed to operate an expanding network of routes, albeit aggressively, to major European destinations, by day and night. The key was co-ordination.

What is your flight plan?

Today, Britain’s aviation policy is in disarray. Other nations are pioneering the new routes. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has seven runways, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle four and even Frankfurt has three. Heathrow offers 1700 flights annually to China, Paris 3500 and Schiphol 2300.

The shape of Britain’s international airports, support services and transit routes is at stake for years to come. But UK strategy is locked in ultra-sensitive arguments.

Mr Johnson put his finger on the dilemma when he said recently: “Can I tell you in the next nine years how many runways they are going to build in China? They are going to build 52. How many are we going to build in the UK? None at all.”

To put more pressure on the Government, Heathrow has commissioned a report called One Hub or None. It estimates that failing to add a third runway to London’s prime airport could cost the UK economy £14 billion a year in lost trade, rising to £26 billion annually by 2030.

Rather than make the wrong decision, the Government has asked Sir Howard Davies to head an independent commission that will provide a very, very long-term view of Britain’s aviation needs.

He will have to take account of a bewildering series of social, environmental, business and economic factors, as well as diametrically opposed suggestions. The chances of pleasing everyone are extremely small.

There is a strong lobby for building a third runway at the edge of Heathrow — and an equal one for not doing so. An extra runway is mooted for Gatwick. Should Northolt be expanded? Would a country-wide approach be better, taking in Birmingham and Manchester? Or is the answer to start again with a totally new strategic air hub?

An increasingly popular idea is to build a brand new air centre in the Thames Estuary. But Medway residents object strongly. Will policymakers be forced to adopt the best compromise?

Aviation policy is visceral, particularly if you live below a flight path. Few people in the southeast want more aircraft flying over them. Further up country, views differ.

Manchester Airport is lobbying hard for more investment and global air routes. It wants to expand as a northern UK international hub in its own right. Other regional air centres think the same. But once again, local residents are far less pleased, as their protests show.

Joined-up strategy

The challenge is to build for tomorrow’s air needs with today’s taxpayers’ or investors’ money.

Many inventive suggestions have been put forward to link up the UK’s existing aviation infrastructure more efficiently and cost effectively. One idea is to build a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. Another is to build the line from London to Manchester. Or should the high-speed link be between Heathrow and Gatwick?

However, not everyone believes that more air travel is the route to prosperity. Plane Stupid is a network of grassroots groups that thinks aviation expansion is unsustainable and unnecessary. It says more short-haul and international flights are a misguided policy. More emphasis should be put on well-grounded transport alternatives.

A major concern is the environmental footprint of flight. Airport Watch is pressing for aviation — and shipping — emissions not to be excluded from the UK Climate Change Act 2008. The Government is due to make a decision by the end of December. Until new aviation technologies and lower carbon fuels are developed, the sector is accused of making a disproportionately high environmental impact.


Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is worried that the UK risks being a “branch-line destination” without a clear aviation policy and will find it hard to complete in global export markets.

CBI Director-General, John Cridland, fears that without swift Government action, the UK will fall foul of rival EU links to emerging nations. “We have no time to lose in getting on with solving the UK’s aviation capacity issue if we are to double our exports by 2020,” he said recently.

The CBI calls for a comprehensive strategy that considers every option to maximise the use of existing infrastructure, particularly in the southeast, plus new runway options.

Katja Hall, CBI Chief Policy Director, has also noted that: “The capacity crunch is already biting for business and a lack of direct links to destinations in growing markets hampers our ability to trade overseas, so this commission should look at all the options”.

Sir Howard Davies, himself a former CBI Director-General, has made clear he understands the urgency and intends to give the next government a “flying start” after the next general election. There will be an interim report at the end of 2013.

Crucially, he says, the commission will not report in full until 2015 for good reasons. Promising “a substantial piece of work”, Sir Howard explained that a national airport policy statement, detailed business case and environmental and noise assessments would be intrinsic to his work.

Building political consensus required in-depth analysis, he explained. The commission’s dual task will firstly be to consider how best to increase capacity within the existing framework, and then narrow down the range of possible options on the table.


So what are the options, especially for the crowded southeast?

Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest airports with more than 69 million passengers annually. Of these, more than a third transfer to on-going flights. But the hub is near full capacity. Agreements with the local authority prevent “mixed mode” take-offs and landings on the same runway. Nor can flights operate 24 hours a day.

A third runway is seen as the best short-term option and could be built relatively quickly, with early knock-on local business benefits. Conversely, it could become the UK’s largest CO2 emitter, increase noise pollution and lead to a loss of homes.

A second runway at Gatwick, which is the world’s largest single runway airport, could form part of a “Heathwick” concept with fast links to Heathrow. Fewer people would be affected by more noise and environmental impacts than at Heathrow.

However, an agreement bans work on any new runway until 2019 and a high-speed rail link between the two airports would be a long-term expensive project. Also, no other European air hub is split between two remote sites. This could be a commercial risk.

Stansted is now Britain’s fourth busiest airport. Suggestions that a second runway there would be easy to implement are countered by poor links to London and other airports.

RAF Northolt handled up to 50,000 take-offs and landings in 1957 and was home to the former British European Airways. It is close to Heathrow, has a lot of spare capacity, but would need a much longer runway. Northolt could take short-haul pressure off Heathrow, but would be little different from a third runway. The Government also wants to retain a military airfield within the M25.

Thames Estuary

And then there is the Thames Estuary. Initially dismissed as a fantasy concept, three separate proposals have now been put forward in the light of popular pressure — not shared by Medway residents.

The first, supported by the Mayor of London, is for an artificial four-runway hub at Shivering Sands in Kent. The second is more ambitious and comes from Sir Norman Foster’s company. It envisages a 150-million passenger hub on the edge of the Isle of Grain combined with a high-speed rail link, a new Thames crossing and new tidal barrier.

This would be large enough to compete with European rivals. But there are downsides. The Heathrow economy would be hit hard. The area is also said to be the worst spot for wild fowl and other water birds, raising a major safety risk. There are fears other wildlife would be threatened. A WWII wreck carrying unexploded ordnance is said to pose another threat.

A recent plan from the architects Gensler would see four floating runways anchored to the estuary floor and is the most expensive proposed at an estimated £60 billion.

Foster and Partners predict their new hub could be built in just seven years and would be an easier project than Heathrow expansion. It adds that while a Heathrow extension would involve moving a motorway junction, affecting other roads, demolishing infrastructure and reconfiguring the whole airport layout, a Thames development could be reached on three sides from the sea.

The company believes it has also worked out how some £30 billion could be raised without government money to fund airport building and a basic rail link to Ebbsfleet, where it would join the high-speed line between London and Paris.

There would also be enough finance to help create an alternative wetland area for displaced migrating birds.

Diplomatic change of mind

The EU has postponed its decision to try to make non-European carriers pay carbon emissions taxes when flying into and out of European air space following objections from the US, China, India and other nations.

EU Climate Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, says she will allow one more year for the Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to negotiate a global deal. After that, the European tax will be reintroduced.

The EU imposed the Emissions Trading Scheme on flights between its 27 Member States on 1 January 2012 after complaining that the ICAO had dragged its feet for years on moves to curb carbon.