Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

The Worst of all Worlds?

The “decision” about airport capacity for London seems to offer the worst of all worlds.

London currently has four main runways (two at Heathrow and one each at Gatwick and Stanstead). This compares to nine runways across New York’s main airports. London Heathrow is “at capacity” with (according to the Economist) 130 million passengers a year passing through the London three (compared to 114 million passing through the New York three).

The “decision” recommended by the Davies Commission is that one more runway should be built in the Heathrow area to the North West of the existing airport. (Just south of the M4 and over the M25 – between Harmondsworth and Colnbrook). This is coupled with severe restrictions on night flying and a legislative ban on further runways at Heathrow.

Does this solve the problem?

It may “solve” it for a few years – but it will take more than a few years to plan, consult, legislate and build it!

If we believe that London needs an international “hub” airport,  will three (independent) runways cut it? The “South Western” runway (over Staines Moor and the reservoirs to the south-west) will give four independent runways. The Davies commission specifically rules this out. Even with this fourth runway further expansion will be very difficult.

Map showing Heathrow and sites of possible North Western and South Western runways © OpenStreetMap contributors

Map showing Heathrow and sites of possible North Western and South Western runways
© OpenStreetMap contributors

A three runway Heathrow looks like an interim solution which will break within the foreseeable future. Either the whole question will get re-examined (expensive and time-consuming) or the “South Western” runway will be built as that will be the cheapest way to get from three runways to four. Given that whatever happens this will be a politically hot potato shouldn’t we be looking for a longer term solution?

The fundamental question is the necessity for “hub” capacity – i.e. an airport which people fly into to get connections to fly out. A hub airport needs more runways and terminals than a mere “destination” airport.

  • Is it just political vanity to say that “London needs a hub airport”?
  • Is a hub airport a good thing merely because of the revenue it makes and the resulting local taxation and employment?
  • Is there something fundamental to the whole economy of the South East that necessitates a hub airport in the South East?
  • Is there something fundamental to the whole economy of the country that necessitates a hub airport in the UK?

The “flying into and flying out of” nature of hub airports falls into two categories:

  • Short-haul (mainly domestic) in for long-haul (international) out – and vice versa.
  • Long-haul (international) in for long-haul (international) out.

Living in the outer periphery of England, I accept that international flight opportunities from my local airports are small and I have to travel either by ground transport to somewhere like Manchester (2 runways) or by short-haul air transport to a “hub airport” to get a long-haul flight. Two main considerations apply:

  1. Good ground connectivity can eliminate the need for the short-haul flight
  2. If flying in and then immediately out, the exact location of the hub is pretty irrelevant to the passenger.

The case for high-speed rail in the North of England has been much debated by many people. If getting to Manchester airport by rail was as easy as getting to Heathrow by plane, many in the North would make greater use of Manchester’s International connections – reducing the strain on London’s airports (no flight in and no flight out). Improved (direct) rail connectivity to Heathrow would also reduce the strain on Heathrow due to the elimination of the short-haul flights.

If you have to fly South to make a connection to a long-haul flight it makes little difference to your total flight time whether you fly into Heathrow or say Schiphol or Frankfurt. Why do I need to fly into London (other than to provide employment to my fellow citizens and tax revenues to our exchequer)? If the Dutch or Germans are kind enough to provide and tolerate a hub airport why not use it?

Likewise what is the real balance of costs and benefits of providing an international long-haul hub to permit Americans to fly into Heathrow to get onward connections to Europe and the Middle East (and vice versa)?  Why can’t they fly into Schiphol or Frankfurt?

The “London is the centre of the country” prejudice is responsible for many of our ills – is it also having an adverse affect on airport planning?

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