Britain needs more airport capacity, but where?by Prospect Team / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
In a recent report, CentreForum recommended expanding Heathrow, for which it won the Prospect Think Tank of the Year award for best publication. But this suggestion has sparked a furious response, saying that the sky over west London is too congested—Gatwick or Stansted would be better suited to expansion. Boris Johnson has even suggested building a new airport to the east of London and, at the end of the year, the Airports Commission will report its conclusions to the government. Here, two leading commentators take up the debate.
NO–Simon Jenkins: The London airport market is essentially about leisure and tourism. Some 80 per cent of journeys are “non-business,” while the majority are taking Britons abroad rather than bringing foreign tourists here. Nor is there any need for a hub—less than 15 per cent of passengers arriving in Britain are in transit. Hub is another word for British Airways’ eternal bid towards monopoly.
The eagerness to expand Heathrow is entirely driven by BA’s desire to capture the lion’s share of the London market. Since the concept of directing ever more noisy planes over built-up areas is now outside the thinking of airport builders everywhere, to inflict such pollution on west London for the sake of one company’s profit should be unthinkable.
Business flights can be concentrated on Heathrow and City Airport as that appears to be what business travellers want. But tourists can go elsewhere. Nor is there any overriding need for domestic flights—a fifth of the current total—to leave from Heathrow. Pushing them elsewhere might encourage more passengers onto the trains.
Tourists have rights, and the right to civilised travel is one of them. But London’s airports have runway capacity to spare, especially at Stansted and Luton. Sensible slot rationing allocates flights (including BA ones) between Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and City. A decision on a new runway at Gatwick is already due by 2015. Another at Stansted is feasible. Point to point flights from elsewhere in Britain seem likely to take an increasing load off London.
The planning of land use in Britain is currently under siege from special interests, so much so that it is near impossible to disentangle facts from lobbying pressure. Heathrow was always intended as a temporary airport. Its expansion west is possible, were silent jets to come into service one day. For the time being it is merely unnecessary. There are plenty of alternatives, all of them more civilised.
YES–Tom Papworth: London needs a hub airport. Dismissing hub capacity as “another word for BA’s eternal bid towards monopoly” shows a lack of understanding of how air travel works. Hubs matter. One need only drive along the M4 into London to see the cluster of global companies whose European headquarters are based near Heathrow. But London’s hub airport has strong competition from Paris and Amsterdam (which have four and six runways respectively).
Providing a hub enables London to sustain direct links with cities it couldn’t fly to if it relied solely on domestic passengers. For example, there aren’t enough British people flying to Mexico City to support a daily flight, but bring passengers in from across Europe and we can fly several times daily to the capital of the world’s 14th largest economy. Without a hub airport, we wouldn’t have direct flights to Lusaka, Beirut, Halifax, Dar es Salaam, Seattle, Phoenix, Chennai, Bangalore, Tripoli, Riyadh, Accra, Ottawa, Dhaka, Hyderabad, Edmonton, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, Luanda and Buenos Aires. That’s a lot of lost business and a huge inconvenience for leisure travellers.
Heathrow currently acts as Britain’s hub and there is no practical alternative. Expanding Gatwick or Stansted is irrelevant: demand is for more hub capacity. Gatwick is the wrong side of London to act as Britain’s hub; it’s difficult to build there and it would need to be substantially redesigned while sustaining 35m passenger journeys. Stansted is far from London and time-consuming to get to. A new airport east of London is a politician’s vanity project that, at an estimated cost of up to £70bn, we cannot afford. What is more, relocating the hub would require relocating thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of jobs. This might appeal to a central planner with delusions of Stalinism, but is impractical in a free society with a market economy.
Heathrow needs to expand substantially: CentreForum, the liberal think tank, has set out plans for four runways further to the west to replace the existing two. This would reduce the number of people affected by noise even as it dramatically improves capacity and provides the UK with the world-class airport it so badly needs.
SJ I accept that some travel interchange is useful for airline companies and travellers. But the word “hub” has become as ubiquitous as “digital,” “holistic” and “iconic” as a blahword to replace argument. I thought in Heathrow’s case it had been demolished by the former BA chairman, Bob Ayling.
There are indeed many companies located around Heathrow, as there are around Cambridge, Birmingham, Leeds and other hubs. The virtues of bigness and concentration are considerable, but so are those of diversity and competition. I am not aware that London having three major office centres, in Westminster, the City and Canary Wharf, damages its competitive advantage. As it is, 10 per cent of flights out of Heathrow on a typical day are to the British Isles, including Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. Meanwhile fewer than 14 per cent of passengers are in transit, and far fewer are businessmen. This must leave plenty of leeway for a “business hub.”
The big growth in air travel is likely to be point to point, which means far more flights using Birmingham, Manchester and others to the north. Building east of London would be wildly expensive and inconvenient. The midlands corridor—Birmingham and Luton—clearly makes sense for passengers not originating in London. Gatwick is not ideal any more than Stansted, but landing there is hardly the end of the world for leisure travellers.
The central issue is not one of what is good for business but whether business has the right to pollute and disrupt the lives of millions. We do not tolerate it on the ground in cities. We regulate the liberty of business to abuse the countryside. Vague assertions about inconvenience to business people cannot overrule the misery inflicted on others.
No one is going to close Heathrow in our lifetime, but the airlines that use it must cut their cloth and tailor their business to its constraints, or go elsewhere.
TP The fact that the phrase “hub airport” is ubiquitous is not because it is a “blahword” but because it describes a vital feature of a world-class airport. One cannot have a sensible conversation about global air travel without considering hub capacity, despite what a single former airline executive might say.
Both business and leisure travellers flying to many major destinations will have to travel via a hub airport: either one located in the UK or one elsewhere in Europe. While there may be an expansion of point-to-point travel to popular destinations, no amount of charter flights from Manchester to Ibiza are going to change the fact that travellers going to Seattle or most of Canada are going to have to travel via a hub airport. It is clearly better for British citizens if that flight leaves from the UK: it makes their journey cheaper and shorter.
The attempt to find alternatives is about opposing Heathrow expansion rather than a belief in the superiority of alternatives. A quarter of all business passengers flying from Heathrow arrive at the airport within 30 minutes of leaving their hotel, and an off-peak Oyster card fare costs just £2.90. No London airport can rival that offer.
The proposals for a four runway Heathrow put forward by CentreForum and now being considered by the Davies Commission specifically look at the pollution issue. Moving the runways to the west will dramatically reduce noise over tens of thousands of houses. Building four runways will make it possible to eliminate night flights completely and will bring an end to the practice of “stacking” aircraft, thus reducing their emissions.
Of course, that is no reason not to allow other airports to expand as well. If one wants diversity and competition, the solution is to allow all London airports to expand. Then we can see which options the passengers really want, instead of trying to predict what they need and providing only that. Such expanded capacity would make air travel both more convenient and a lot cheaper, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, which would be enormously popular.
SJ We were told London would never be a world capital if it refused to demolish its historic core and construct giant “floor-plates” for heavy computers. It did not do so, computers got smaller and London became the finance capital of Europe. We were told a business capital should embrace supersonic air travel. That proved daft. Now we are told that hub capacity—largely to convenience outgoing British tourists—is more important than tolerable noise levels in west London. I could just as well argue that the hypermobile tycoons who obsess the Heathrow lobby will emigrate if their west London homes are plagued with aircraft noise. London’s quality of life—not tourist Oyster cards—is crucial to its prosperity.
TP To dismiss the “convenience” of British tourists and business people is to ignore the comfort of millions of human beings. Heathrow provides a service to 70m passengers a year. Restraining Heathrow’s development makes air travel unnecessarily expensive and unpleasant. It also impedes the growth of our economy and threatens the 205,000 jobs that depend on the airport.
Expanding Heathrow to the west will improve the quality of life for west Londoners, as they will experience less noise and fewer night flights. Many Londoners have anyway deliberately chosen to live in a part of the UK that is just seven hours from New York.
It is high time we stopped the knee-jerk opposition to every act of economic development. Cities, economies and successful airports should be allowed to grow.
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