Professor KEITH HAYWARD FRAeS considers the recent UK Government greenlight for a third runaway at Heathrow. Is UK airport expansion now finally cleared for take-off?

A bright new future ahead for the UK's busiest airport? (Heathrow Airport)

A last word on runways in the South East? - In my dreams I suspect. The government has announced its ‘decision’ on the location of a new London runway; that seems so much less spectacular than revealing plans for a splendid new 21st century airport. This would be somewhere to the north of London, linked directly to major population centres by fast rail and a less congested road network - of course, Cublington, the first proposal nearly 50 years ago. We can still dismiss out of hand the more easterly master plans: too many wild birds to shift and not best placed for a UK hub. Sorry Gatwick, good fight and still worth some investment in it own right.

I might also agree for once with Ryanair's Michael O’Leary that all three London region airports have a strong case for expansion – assuming post-Brexit air traffic growth rates do maintain the current projections. I’m not so sure that his view that market forces could determine charge levels. Indeed, I still tend to reflect an older generation of left-wing thinking that large-scale national infrastructure development needs some degree of coordinated central direction. Private capitalisation per se is no problem, and to be welcomed, but to my statist mentality it would seem more rational to operate London airports as an integrated entity.

Not the ideal choice in the best of all possible worlds, but…

Development timeline for Heathrow expansion (DfT)

But living with what we have, making a silk purse out of the higgledy-piggledy development just off the M4 is what we have and must live with. If it is the best of a poor set of solutions, it has been clear as such for years. And of course, there will be legal challenges to come. A judicial review will have to be launched before the next round of planning consultations, or after the House of Commons vote this time next year. That at least should be a formality – a majority of MPs will vote for better connectivity with the national hub airport, a ring-fenced commitment we are told by the Secretary of State. That might then trigger a judicial review. Appeals either way can be expected; so 2029 looks a pretty good bet for first flight.

The biggest hurdle is likely to be air quality. Noise might also be a problem, certainly on approach where frequency and aerodynamic noise will affect more people. Air quality is trickier given the proximity of two motorways and the inevitability of increased road traffic into Heathrow. This could yet be the legal showstopper. Air quality levels already exceed European regulations – and Brexit or not Brexit, I can’t see politicians agreeing to less restrictive levels. Mitigation via congestion charging might help; better (and cheaper) public transport links would be even better. But even with the proposed Crossrail spur the detailed connections into and within Central London are not ideal, especially from Euston.

The right choice in the end

After years of dithering - now time to get on with it? (Heathrow Airport)

Enough of damning with faint praise: the new Heathrow will have to deliver its promised extension on time and on cost. There is a good track record here. The airlines (and this really means the UK-based carriers) will need to increase feeder flights to the nations and English regions. This should follow naturally given the availability of a dedicated short-medium haul runway. The UK will need those new long haul flights to new destinations, and not just more slots for existing high-revenue services. The challenge of avoiding too much M25 disruption will be interesting – former Harrier pilots may be especially valued if the runway is 'ramped' over the motorway.

But overall, the economic case for Heathrow just about carries the day, with all due respect to the folks affected by demolition and loss of community. I will not use the rhetoric of demonstrating that the UK is ‘open for business’ – good international connectivity is vital in any case and building on the Heathrow hub remains the best national option. So fair thee well the former Fairey airfield.

Keith Hayward
1 November 2016