Heathrow’s tale of three runways

By: | at 10:00 AM | Channel(s): Air Cargo News  

The issue of building a third runway at Heathrow has had a life of its own, drawing both strong supporters and equally ardent opponents. In the current regulatory environment of climate change legislation, the prospects seemed dead, yet once again the runway plans have life.

By Dr. Barbara Lauriat, AJOT

Murmurs of a plan to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport were first heard more than a decade ago. Yet, after years of debate, government inquiry, and public consultation, the runway has yet to be constructed. Like jumbos passing overhead on a flight path, the noise builds to a pitch, then begins to fade…but before it dies away completely, the next rumble of discontent emerges from the distance.

Protests aside, it is hard to ignore the economic importance of Hearthrow to greater London, the UK and indeed Europe. Nearly 1,300 flights transit the airport everyday to critical economic destinations like New York (US), Dubai, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Approximately, 70-million passengers will transit the airport in an average year. Annually the airport handles over 1.56-million tonnes of cargo ranking around 16th in the world in terms of airfreight.

While all three major political parties in the UK are officially opposed to the construction of a third runway, prominent Labour and Conservative Members of Parliament call for reconsideration in the face of growing need for increased capacity at Heathrow. The Government has been reviewing possibilities for airport expansion in Southeast England since September. Prime Minister David Cameron is not as staunch in his opposition to the third runway option as critics of the plan would like. On April 27th, in response to concerns about the Government’s position, hundreds rallied against Heathrow expansion in Barnes, where they were addressed by London Mayor Boris Johnson and MP Zac Goldsmith.

The problem is a formidable one: Heathrow suffers severe delays but is full to capacity. A new runway would allow access to new markets and the ability for the UK to compete with continental rivals as a major hub. Even with a potential cost of £10 billion, there is little doubt that it would result in net economic benefit—even if the exact numbers are the subject of constant debate. But there could be significant harm to the environment and quality of life in the region from noise pollution, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The last UK Labour Government wanted a third runway since at least 2003; its published plan for the country’s aviation strategy included expansion at Heathrow. But an immediate obstacle came from strict European regulations on air pollution. These set down maximum levels of pollutants such as fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide. The centre of London was—and still is—over the limit for nitrogen dioxide, as was the area surrounding Heathrow in West London. A new runway, with more planes and extra transport for passengers, would add to the pollution.

It’s Location, Location, Location

The location of Heathrow is also a problem. The airport is effectively in the western suburbs of the city, and the prevailing westerly wind means that planes frequently come in to land from the east—i.e. over the city. Although there is no clear legal limit on aircraft noise, with a million or so citizens directly affected, it is a major political issue in West London.

“Heathrow is almost certainly in the wrong place,” observes Sir David Keene, a retired UK Court of Appeal judge with expertise in large-scale planning. Keene practiced planning law as a barrister for many years, obtaining planning permission for London City Airport and Manchester Airport’s second runway after major public inquiries. “Its runways are aligned east-west, so that 50% of its flights cross the built up area of London,” he observes. “If one were starting from scratch, one would not put the main UK airport there.”

No politician wanted to add more planes without a plan to contain the noise. So the Government imposed its own target: no increase in “average noise.” In theory, as technological improvements make individual planes quieter, there can be more of them without increasing the overall amount of noise.

Years of technical modelling work followed, in an attempt to demonstrate that an expanded airport could meet stringent environmental tests. In 2009, the Government confirmed its support. In the meantime, however, new environmental standards were accepted. The UK passed the Climate Change Act in 2008, setting itself legally-binding limits on the amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted by 2050. The expansion of UK aviation set out in the 2003 policy would have meant aviation greenhouse gas emissions doubling by 2050, while needing to reduce overall emissions by 80%.

As the Barnes rally demonstrated, the issue of the third runway is live once again. The current recession, combined with what some view as an anti-green strain within the Conservative party, has pushed environmental issues to the background and economic growth to the forefront. Under intense pressure from aviation and other business leaders, the Coalition Government first widened its own policy review to open the door to a third runway, and then tried to draw the sting from the decision by setting up and independent review panel.

Tellingly, emissions from international aviation (which form the large bulk of emissions for every country in the world except for the United States) were left out of the targets under the Climate Change Act 2008, with a stipulation that the Government had to decide whether to include them by the end of 2012. The Government’s expert committee duly reported in mid-2012, recommending that they should be included. On December 20, the Government announced that it was deferring the decision until 2016. Like the decision on the third runway, that will be after the next general election.

Noise will always be a problem with Heathrow. Some advocate the radical option of starting from scratch, with a four-runway airport in the Thames estuary to the east of the City. Many in the industry are highly sceptical of the cost this would involve, while environmentalists and aircraft safety experts alike point out the importance of the wetland site for flocks of migrating birds.

Is Heathrow Expansion Dead or Coming Alive?

“Maybe even 20 or 30 years ago, there was a case for building a new hub airport near the Thames estuary, east of London, and closing Heathrow. But quite apart from the cost, that is no longer a sensible solution because so much industry, especially hi-tech industry, has located near Heathrow and it would be hugely disruptive to close the airport. Yet more runway capacity is needed, especially at a hub airport, and I can see no realistic alternative to a third runway at Heathrow,” says Keene.

There are already some plans a foot. Heathrow executives recently upped their spending plans to £3 billion in their submission to the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) for 2014-19. The submission is an about face as the original plan submitted to the CAA called for £2 billion cut. These plans certainly would address the issues that air cargo users have with the airport but they represent movement in what for years looked like a dead argument. Still the idea of an alternative to Heathrow draws interest.

The move to construct a new airport in the Southeast has a high-profile backer: Mayor Boris Johnson, who emphatically opposes construction of the third runway. Johnson is still riding high after the London Olympics and is hotly tipped as the next leader of the Conservative party. He may one day have the profile and political power to push through the alternative airport plan—already referred to as “Boris Island.”

American Journal of Transportation