BILL READ reports on a recent conference on the on-going debate over airport capacity in the Southeast of England. [caption id="attachment_7794" align="alignnone" width="403"] Crowded house? How much space is left at Heathrow?[/caption] Over the past few years, the debate over whether or not there should be additional airport capacity in the area around London has featured many times in the pages of Aerospace International. On 31 January a half-day seminar organised at the RAeS by the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum presented the latest views on the issue with presentations from representatives from government, airport operators, business and environmental groups. Two recent developments were much cited during the conference. The first was the publication in January of the UK Department of Transport (DfT)’s  latest UK Aviation Forecast  which predicts that passenger numbers at UK airports are set to increase from 219m in 2011 to 315m in 2030 and 445m by 2050. The demand for air travel is estimated to rise from between 1% - 3% per year – a lower figure than the 7% per year increase up to 2030 predicted in the DfT’s previous forecast published in August. The 2013 report forecasts that Heathrow will remain at full capacity while the other major SE airports are predicted to reach their total collective capacity between 2025 to 2040. At present, the British government has no plans to build new runways at Heathrow or any other London airport. However, there have been many calls from business groups for the coalition government to reconsider its policy, claiming that the lack of new airport infrastructure was restricting economic growth and losing business from London’s airports to international hubs in mainland Europe. As a result of these pleas, Sir Howard Davies was appointed in November 2012 to head an independent inquiry to investigate options for increasing airport capacity in the UK. However, the Davies Commission is not expected to present its final findings until after the next General Election in 2015 – a timescale that many of the speakers at the conference considered to be too long.  

 The case for capacity

[caption id="attachment_7795" align="alignnone" width="333"] Stewart Wingate, CEO of Gatwick Aiport at the conference.[/caption] The case for increased capacity was presented by Baroness Valentine, Chief Executive of the London First business promotion group. “We need more capacity now,” she stated. “The market cannot wait for this inward-looking debate on runways.” Many other speakers agreed with her. “We've let go without new capacity for years,” added Peter Morris, chief economist of the aviation consultancy Ascend. “The result has been more and more traffic squeezed into existing capacity.” Daniel Moylan, aviation advisor to the Mayor of London also supported the need for change, saying: “I don't need to explain that flying is important. 80% of people who come to the UK come by air and London needs connectivity for economic growth.”  “Connectivity is the lifeblood of trade and new air links are an enabler,” concluded Rhian Kelly, director for business environment, CBI. “We need to improve the trading role for the UK economy. Heathrow has reached saturation and is failing compared with Europe to offer flights to emerging economies.” However, the seriousness of the capacity crisis appears to vary depending on who you ask. Stewart Wingate, ceo of Gatwick Airport said that, although Heathrow is close to capacity, London’s airports as a whole could support 23% more flights with their existing runways and 32% more passengers through their terminals. Cait Hewitt, deputy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, claimed that government predictions of the rate of aviation growth up to 2030 and 2050 have fallen each time a new forecast is published. “Aviation’s value to the UK economy is overstated,” she says. “Connectivity is important for business but it doesn’t need to be from a hub airport, nor from direct flights and not necessarily by air.”   

Noise and greenhouse gases

[caption id="attachment_7796" align="alignnone" width="350"] Local environment issues such as noise footprints are an emotive issue. (Wikipedia/Arpingstone).[/caption] In addition to the positive benefits of airports, speakers also debated their negative environmental impacts. No speakers denied that airports do cause noise and pollution but those with interests in the air transport industry, stressed that these problems should be balanced    against the economic advantages that aviation brings. The issue of the environment is an important one as airports and airlines are having to work to reduce levels of noise, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to conform with EU and international legislation. “Climate change considerations indicate that building new runways would be reckless,” says Cait Hewitt. “The UK cannot meet legal targets of climate change by building new runways. Is it fair to expect other industries to reduce their emissions while aviation increases theirs?” Baroness Valentine stressed that carbon dioxide reductions from airports should not just focus on new aircraft technology and procedures. “We need also to look at CO2 emissions from ground transport,” she said. CEO of Heathrow Airport, Colin Matthews, explained how restricting the expansion of Heathrow would not help to reduce CO2 emissions. First, much of the pollution was coming from cars and other land transport and, secondly, if Heathrow was not expanded, people would use Paris CDG as a hub instead, this generating more CO2.  

Expansion options

A number of ideas have been proposed to ease the SE of England’s air transport capacity crisis. Among the short-term solutions are:
  1. 1. To add up to 120,000 flights per year into Heathrow through the introduction of mixed-mode traffic (including previous banned night flights and the dual use of runways for both take-offs and landings)
  2. 2.  To make more use of surplus capacity at other London airports.
Over the longer term, several new building projects are proposed, including:
  1. 1.  To build a third runway at Heathrow
  2. 2.  To build a completely new airport east of London
  3. 3.  To build a second runway at Gatwick
  4. 4.  To convert the RAF Northolt military air base to civilian use and to link it to Heathrow with a rapid transport system.
 The Davies Commission will be considering some of these options, including the third HRW runway and a new Thames Estuary Airport, as well as the possible expansion of Stansted.  

Is Heathrow the answer?

[caption id="attachment_7797" align="alignnone" width="333"] CEO of Heathrow Airport, Colin Matthews speaking.[/caption] Much of the debate at the conference concentrated on the pros and cons of both short and long-term expansion of traffic at Heathrow. “International airlines want to come to Heathrow,” says Colin Matthews. “Otherwise, why would they pay £25m for a landing slot?” He argued that expansion at Heathrow was essential to compete with other international hub airports at Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. “We shouldn't delay,” he stated. “There is a real danger that Britain will miss out.” He noted that the reason that 80% of long haul airlines come to Heathrow is because it has highest number of transfer passengers. Stewart Wingate, CEO of Gatwick airport agreed. “There is competition between UK and continental airports,” he said. “Passenger and airlines can switch.” MP Tim Yeo also supported expansion at Heathrow, particularly if it could be linked in to improved land transport connections, including high speed rail lines. “A third Heathrow runway would reduce noise levels through the introduction of quieter modern planes and less stacking of aircraft waiting to land,” he said. The case against a third Heathrow runway was presented by John Stewart, chair of HACAN (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) which represents local residents under the Heathrow flight path. “The third runway will never be built,” declared Stewart. “All politicians, including the Mayor of London are putting Heathrow in the ‘too difficult’ box. On the environmental side, a total of 275,000 people are already affected by aircraft noise and a third runway would increase this number by an additional 150,000.” He also argued against the adoption of mixed mode operations which would result in an additional 80,000 flights per year operating at all times of the day. “You're risking a revolution in Richmond,” he commented. Stewart also stated that there were pockets of pollution around Heathrow which were already above EU legal limits and increasing the number of flights would only make this situation worse. The environmental argument against Heathrow expansion was echoed by Daniel Moylan. “28% of the population of Europe are already affected by Heathrow." he said. “A third runway could affect up to 1m people. In addition, a third runway would require updated surface access with additional costs.”  

Look east

[caption id="attachment_7798" align="alignnone" width="403"] A possible 4 runway Thames Estuary Airport at Goodwin Sands. (Beckett Rankin)[/caption] In recent years, there have been a number of proposals for the building of a completely new airport east of London in the Thames Estuary. Robin Cooper, Director of Regeneration, Community and Culture, Medway Council, said there have been five recent proposals for new major airports located in the Thames Estuary.
  1.  1. Cliffe Airport - three runways, Cliffe, Hoo Peninsula (Olsen)
  2. 2. Thames Hub – four runways, Isle of Grain, Hoo Peninsula (Foster & Partner)
  3. 3. London Jubilee Airport – five to six runways, offshore in Thames Estuary six miles northeast of Isle of Sheppey (Trestad)
  4. 4. London Britannia Airport – four floating runways in Thames Estuary linked to north and south land terminals (Gensler)
  5. 5. Goodwin Sands Airport – four runways, Goodwin Sands (Beckett Rankin)
“I agree that we need a hub airport for London”, says Daniel Moylan. “However, I don't think that knitting together different airports is the answer. A new airport would be the most economically and environmentally efficient solution. Moylan estimates that a new Thames Estuary Airport (TEA) would cost around £30bn. “That may seem a lot but, if you look at it in terms of £2bn per year over 15 years, it is affordable in context of government expenditure,” says Moylan. However, few of the other speakers shared his enthusiasm. “To move Heathrow to another location would be disastrous for the London economy,” agrees Tim Yeo. “A new TEA would be in the ‘wrong place’ as most passengers come from the west and London would be in the way. In addition, a new airport could not be ready until the 2030s which is far too late and a £30bn project is not something that Chancellor George Osbourne wants to see while trying to reduce the deficit.” “A TEA is neither practical nor economic,” argued Robin Cooper - director of Regeneration, Community and Culture, Medway Council. “The airport would need not 15 but 25 years construction time and would cost £75 to 80bn, possibly even up to £100bn. The cost of travelling across London to get to the TEA could be as high as £75 for a one-way train ticket. There are also all sorts of problems with the location. NATS has been reported as saying the Thames Estuary is the worst possible place to put an airport. To build it would affect a container port, gas terminal and power station. There are also 300,000 birds living on the estuary, increasing the risk of bird strikes, as well as the underwater wreck of the WW2 liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery which is filled with explosives. Cooper added that proposals for a new airport on the Hoo Peninsula could require the demolition of nine villages, affecting up to 23,000 people. In addition, a total of 100,000 new houses would be needed to house airport workers. Doug Parr of Greenpeace gave the opinion that having to clear villages to make way for a Thames Estuary airport was “importing government tactics from developing countries.” He expanded: “The UK is not unique is being opposed to airport expansions. Heathrow is not only place with angry citizens as authorities in Frankfurt have had to use teargas against local protests.” In addition to the environmental impact, another problem is what would happen to Heathrow. “If a new airport was to be created east of London, then Heathrow would have close with the loss of up 100,000 jobs,” said Robin Cooper. “A lot of infrastructure is now tied up in southwest London,” adds Peter Morris while Frank Wingate from the West London chamber of commerce says: “West London is a major part of London's economy which will be adversely affected by the airport’s closure.” “The damage to the West London economy is exaggerated,” counters Daniel Moylan. “The TEA project will take 15 years, including the planning process. During that time, many people currently working at Heathrow will retire, businesses based at Heathrow will be able to plan well in advance and other businesses will grow in West London to replace lost jobs.”  

Other airports

[caption id="attachment_6646" align="alignnone" width="403"] Could a revamped RAF Northolt provide critical breathing space?[/caption] An alternative proposal to expanding Heathrow or building a new airport is to expand existing airports. “The solution is to maximise the spare capacity still available at other London airports or to use regional airports with high-speed rail links,” says Robin Cooper. Rhian Kelly from the CBI agreed: “We don’t just need a single hub airport, we need connections across UK as well. The pinch point is on the ground, not the air. We need surface links as well. Kelly suggests that what is needed in the short term is to maximise existing airport capabilities, including road/rail links and the introduction of mixed mode capacity at Heathrow. In the medium term she proposes addition runways at London airports and, in the long term, the possible construction of new airports. Regarding possible expansion at Gatwick, ceo Stewart Wingate said that the airport had announced in October that it was to assess options for new runway capacity. This followed a Master Plan published in July which included possible scenarios for a second runway by 2030. However, no expansion would be possible without government and local approval. He added: “London is unique, it doesn't just need one airport.” In the short term, Baroness Valentine suggested that action should be taken to deregulate Gatwick and Stansted Airports, and make more use of spare capacity at Birmingham. An alternative option that is being put forward is to adapt RAF Northolt to civilian use and to link it to Heathrow with a rapid transport system. However, this suggestion found little support from the conference speakers. Colin Matthews pointed out that it already takes transfer passengers an hour to get from Heathrow Terminal 4 to Terminal 5 and Northolt won't be any faster. “Passengers have a choice,” he said. “They won't go to Northolt because of the time delay.” Peter Morris reminded delegates of the economic failure of Montreal Mirabel airport in Canada which opened in 1975 to complement the existing Dorval airport but was shunned by both airlines and passengers due to poor land transport links and ceased commercial flights in 2004.  

Capacity now

None of the newbuilding options detailed above would happen fast. “The problem is how to get capacity now,” says Stewart Wingate. “Even on the fastest time line, Gatwick would not get a new runway until mid 2020s. The environmental lobbyists disagreed that capacity was an issue. “There is already enough capacity to allow for an increase in flights,” says Cait Hewitt, to which Doug Parr of Greenpeace added: “There is capacity at other airports than Heathrow." One ‘other airport’ interested in getting a larger share of London traffic is Birmingham. “The fix is in the future,” declared Paul Kehoe, CEO of Birmingham Airport. “We need a solution now and Birmingham has the capacity. As for the longer term, new transport links offered by fast rail projects such as HS2 could enable Birmingham to compete as an alternative London airport.”  

Where do we go from here?

[caption id="attachment_7799" align="alignnone" width="401"] No consensus but time is still ticking on...[/caption] The conclusion of the debate appeared to be that, while most people are keen on reaping the economic benefits of airports, not so many want the financial and environmental costs that come with them. There also appears to be little or no consensus on the potential future economic/environmental costs or benefits of either taking no action or of new investment. Coupled with a current lack of political commitment to new airport projects, it looks as if the Southeast may be waiting some time for anything to happen.  

Royal Aeronautical Society
15 February 2013