Airport expansion: Just make a decision!

Another year gone by and yet another delayed decision on UK airport expansion.  The whole world has moved forward with expanding aviation capacity and the UK has, once again, been left behind due to political dithering.

If we are to consider long term solutions as to where we expand our airport capacity then why have we limited ourselves to an option that has already ruled out further expansion beyond three runways? Charles De Gaulle already has four runways, Schipol has six and Middle Eastern hub airports, such as Abu Dhabi, could expand even further – they are miles ahead of us already!

Admittedly, our capacity and hub status could be maintained in the short term by a 3rd runway at Heathrow but it wouldn’t be long before the great capacity debate rears its head once again. The numerous constraints that plague Heathrow simply cannot be ignored. Local road and transport infrastructures would not cope with further congestion unless huge public investment was to take place, which is very unlikely in this age of austerity. Sir Howard Davies Airports Commission has already put in place numerous constraints on expansion at Heathrow such as eliminating all night flights which damages the competitiveness of Heathrow to other hub destinations and the UK economy.

The substantial population that lives under the flight path and the subsequent noise and air pollution that comes with expansion would hugely complicate any plans both politically and locally. Although noise and emissions would reduce with modern engines over time, the reality of a silent and clean jet engine is a long way off. Subjecting residents under the flight paths of Heathrow too greater noise and air pollution for the next fifty years, just because a graph with reduction limits says it is ok to do so, is not justifiable. Even with the fantastic safety record of jet airliners we must consider if we want increasingly more planes flying over the centre of our capital city let alone any city. I am not trying to justify NIMBYism; I am simply trying to highlight concerns, considering that Heathrow cannot meet our requirements the long term for a leading global hub airport.

If a 3rd runway was to be built, the landing slots would rapidly be taken up by long haul flights and make further slots even more competitive due to the growth in connectivity. This would mount pressure on the few short haul slots at Heathrow -which is the whole point of a hub- and if these were to be reduced, smaller economic areas in the UK such as the North East, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which see a UK hub as vital to their prosperity, would be damaged. The only outcome of a 3rd runway for sustainability and long term growth would be for a 4th runway and then in all probability a 5th!

There are suggestions that we should connect our hub airports of Gatwick and Heathrow with a high speed train line – a bit of a fantasy idea? A hub airport is designed to allow passengers to transfer, in the confines of the terminal, from one plane to another. The idea of checking bags in and out, passing through security and then passport control in order to catch a train to another airport is not a long term practical solution. The additional cost to passenger’s tickets of a train fare, on top of their flight tickets, would push the affordability out of most passengers reach as well as the increased transfer time incurred. Surely they would simply continue to use Schipol or alternative hubs to connect to flights?

A simple answer would be for Gatwick to get another runway- it is a commercial business with a feasible plan to expand. Gatwick is the busiest single runway airport in the world and, at present, has the demand to support a second runway. The impact of further noise on local residents is minimal, compared to Heathrow, as is the need to move people from their homes on compulsory purchase. Gatwick is limited by its location and the capacity of its local transport links, however, the M23 is due for upgrading. The railways are receiving investment in the form of Thameslink which will go some way towards coping with growth in passenger numbers.

Gatwick is not the long term solution to the UK’s hub airport status or the airport that is best placed to serve the whole of the UK but, as a private commercial business with growing demand, it should be free to expand. In the long run, expansion at Gatwick would begin to help the UK’s aviation capacity needs. Gatwick will always be a short haul airport for the London and the South East but it will provide healthy competition to other airports and still provide a great deal of choice to consumers and airlines to connect to new destinations.

Boris Island is beginning to seriously develop ideas towards a long term solution to expanding our airport capacity however there are a number of issues that make this option uneconomic. Primarily, any Boris Island development would rely on the closure and sale of Heathrow. Heathrow has many positive and negative aspects- it is hugely beneficial for jobs and the West London economy but it produces large amounts of air and noise pollution. It is too important to close down for the sake of Boris Island and any future airport expansion should be built in competition and conjunction with current airports.

Building Boris Island would require substantial investment in road and rail infrastructure that does not currently exist, compared to alternative solutions – which would all be funded by the public purse. Its location, being an hour East of London, would be an inconvenience for people to travel to by train or car compared to other airports and therefore would become a £50 billion white elephant. Airlines and passengers would subsequently have to be subsidised for the airport to be used.

Expanding Luton Airport could be a solution, although Davies has not shortlisted it (probably due to it being owned by Luton Council who have a vested interest for this airport not becoming a giant hub). Luton has never had the opportunity to compete in part due to a lack of investment from its owners, it has a short runway and other factors which make it unattractive for airlines to use. The land required for a multiple runway hub airport is currently available to the South of Luton Airport and this sparsely populated agricultural land would not have the same political issues with re-housing people as alternative options would. There would also be minimal impact from noise to the East and West of any proposed runway at Luton due to very few densely populated areas, unlike Heathrow.

The transport links to and from Luton airport are better than those at Heathrow and significantly better to those at Gatwick and Boris Island. Luton has great road links to the M1 and A1M which go to the centre of London, the Midlands and the North. The airport is also situated on the Midland Main Line – which is due for upgrade as part of the electrification programme, providing a greater capacity and speed – with fast trains to London in 24 minutes, exactly the same as trains from Heathrow to London. The rail links can take people all across the North and Midlands far better than rail links at Heathrow.

Luton Airport has the space to expand to four runways, if not five, and could become not just London’s hub airport but the UK’s too. Compared to all the other options, it would affect fewer people in terms of development and noise. This area of the country also could benefit from the improved employment prospects that would come with such a development. Heathrow would never be able to expand to four or more runways and is already situated in an area of high employment. Luton is situated at the centre of the economy and is equally accessible for people from the North, the Midlands, the South East and London.  It could go a long way in re-balancing the economy whilst not disadvantaging London.

The long term aviation strategy should be to develop capacity and a hub airport of which many aviation industries can benefit from. Our airports are private commercial businesses and, if they have a development strategy to grow their businesses, they should be supported.  A second runway at Gatwick should be encouraged for it not only has the forecasted demand but a development strategy that is fully funded.

If Luton was a private commercial business the government should support the development as the new hub destination for the UK – it is the best location and most suitable area to build a new runway. Heathrow has too many issues with noise, air pollution and constraints that the Airports Commission has put in place to be practically possible. Noise pollution could be considered a minor issue but with such a huge number of people being affected an alternative solution must be found. Even as Libertarians we sometimes must accept that too many people will be negatively affected by its expansion, in the same way the great railway pioneers in the 1800’s accepted that driving railway lines further in to the centre of London was impractical.

Our long term aviation capacity needs can be met by expanding Luton, not Heathrow.  Expanding Heathrow is not the ultimate solution – in the next decade the economies of India, China, Brazil etc will expect links with the UK and these can only be met by a hub airport at Luton. If Luton airport cannot be expanded then the only option would be to build another runway at Heathrow however this will not solve the long term capacity problems. Expanding Luton Airport will support the long term future of our aviation capacity in the UK and maintain us as the dominant hub destination.

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty