Stepping off the District line from her Putney constituency at Westminster, transport secretary Justine Greening can hardly have failed to notice the tube station’s escalators and barriers festooned in the purple regalia of a single campaign: Heathrow’s continued push to build a third runway.
Later this month, the government is due to publish a paper setting out whether, and how, air travel can grow. Details are likely to be few: noise and pollution will continue to be bad, “sustainable” aviation an aspiration.
Given the coalition agreement that rules out such a runway (and any airport expansion in the south-east), the maths of marginal London constituencies and David Cameron’s fading but not forgotten environmental claims, the room for manoeuvre is small.
But there is one possible path – and BAA, the owner of Heathrow, is lobbying to nudge the government along it. A government consultation on capacity also being launched will pose the questions BAA wants to answer. Is there a need for more airports to meet anticipated future demand? Specifically, what are the options for “hub” capacity – a genus of airport that BAA insists is in a different league to Gatwick, Stansted or Manchester, and exists only in its native habitat of the M4 corridor?
The orthodoxy about hubs such as Heathrow is that only a sufficiently huge airport can provide enough transfer passengers to make both connecting and long-haul routes viable, allowing the UK to be linked to fast-growing emerging markets such as China and India.
Despite officially ruling out Heathrow expansion, noises emanating from the Department for Transport suggest BAA’s claims won’t go entirely unheard.
Greening campaigned against the runway as a local MP – in fact, she was an activist running street stalls in Putney before she took up the cudgels as a prospective parliamentary candidate. The prospects of her signing off a bigger Heathrow are zero. But this a long game, and none of the previous five transport secretaries lasted more than 18 months.
Lately, Greening has spoken of “steps we can take to make the most out of existing capacity” at Heathrow and “maintaining competitive edge”. One apparent compromise could be getting more planes in and out under “mixed mode” – using both runways as air traffic controllers see fit.
Let them freely manage take-off and landings and you could straighten the flight paths, reduce stacking and use less fuel.
Some think even an anodyne question in the consultation asking how to make “more efficient use of the existing capacity” could set off a whole new battle. According to Hacan, the local Heathrow anti-noise campaign group, the rules that stipulate alternating flight patterns give residents a few hours of respite. Director John Stewart said: “If you take that away, you could generate revolution in Richmond. It could be even more controversial than a third runway.”
Environmentalists are not the only ones to query the hub argument: plenty within the industry do too. The government has reiterated that regional airports have a big part to play. Stansted has space to grow; Luton has unveiled proposals to double its capacity to 18 million passengers a year.
Birmingham International, with an imminent runway extension and a barely used pier fit for long-haul Airbus A380s, claims to be another answer to capacity constraints, especially once high-speed rail slashes journey times.
EasyJet says the hub argument is “overstated: the vast majority of passengers flying in and out of Britain’s airports prefer simple point-to-point flights”.
However, BAA claims that jobs and growth will be lost because new routes miss out Heathrow – a view likely to find favour with the London business groups, many Tory MPs and unions that back it.
Airlines too have been vocal in their support for BAA, pointing to emerging markets Heathrow cannot serve. Richard Branson of Virgin – 65% of whose fleet is at Heathrow – last week denounced a “cowardly” decision to halt the airport’s growth. Willie Walsh of IAG, British Airway’s parent airline, told the British Chambers of Commerce that anyone trying to do business with Guangzhou should start from Frankfurt rather than the capital of a country with “no aviation policy to speak of”.
Both airlines have ordered Dreamliners, the Boeing 787 said to make substantially less noise, for service by 2013-15.
Capacity is not the airline bosses’ only bugbear: they’re even more vocal on taxation, decrying both Britain’s air passenger duty and Europe’s nascent emissions trading scheme as damaging to the nation.
The recently unveiled sustainable aviation “roadmap” purports to show how ever more flights can be reconciled with halving emissions by 2050 – albeit with a large dose of good faith and by trading an awful lot of carbon permits. The framework the government now sets will have to weigh up whether Britain, and its biggest airport, really does need more flights – or if, as environmentalists say, this is the same old cry of an industry that refuses to accept its demands will never be met.