Excellent article by Simon Jenkins, in the Standard, on Heathrow etc. “It’s all about greed”.
Jenkins has seen straight through the aviation industry spin and PR, and is not remotely taken in by it. In a brilliantly written piece, this are some quotes: “BAA and BA have been wrapping themselves in the flag of “growth” and “UK plc” for years, as if Heathrow had anything to do with some wider public interest. It does not. British aviation is chiefly about shifting millions of leisure travellers, mostly British tourists going overseas” And “. A mere 13% of British airport passengers are in any sense “business”, and that embraces company junkets, conferences and trips on expenses. The industry may present Heathrow as the throbbing hub, the nerve centre, of the nation’s economy but only 30% of its passengers are in any sense “business”, which is why it is designed like a supermarket. Gatwick and Stansted are barely 15% business travellers. This whole enterprise is dedicated to inducing Britons to holiday abroad.”
The third runway debate is back, and it’s all about greed
26 June 2012
It won’t lie down. Like some ancient vampire, the “third runway at Heathrow” is the living dead. Born of greed and sucking lobbying cash into its veins, its coffin is hammered shut time and again. Yet come the fall of dusk over west London, with much creaking and howling, it slinks back on stage.
Governments have promised no expansion at Heathrow for half a century. In the Sixties, they admitted it was an airport in the wrong place and told local residents there would be no expansion “for all time”. The same pledge was repeated after Terminal 4 was built in 1978, again after Terminal 5, and when the Labour transport minister, Ruth Kelly, reneged and promised “just a mini-runway” in 2006. Ministers lied, all of them. They swore on their mothers’ graves, and then lied.
Before the 2010 election David Cameron and Nick Clegg could not have been clearer. There would be no third runway at Heathrow. In this day and age in a civilised country, you could not seriously propose to fly ever bigger and noisier jets over heavily populated areas. It was a promise. Read my lips.
The money refused to admit defeat. The money, in the form of BAA and British Airways as it then was, knew that a Heathrow promise was not worth a bucket of spit. They would not give up until the last aviation civil servant was lying dead of lunch overdose in the Whitehall gutter. Lord Adonis, Colin Matthews of BAA and Willie Walsh of BA/IAG cared not a jot for the pledges that elected politicians give. They have cash-thirsty companies to run.
Since Heathrow is my nearest airport I suppose I must declare an interest in a third runway. Since the runway would send planes distantly over my home I have a conflicting interest. But there are surely more important interests. One is in the coherent planning of
London’s infrastructure, striking a balance between commerce and the environment. Another is that government should take decisions quickly, honestly and fairly and, once taken, keep them.
One issue can be dismissed at once. BAA and BA have been wrapping themselves in the flag of “growth” and “UK plc” for years, as if Heathrow had anything to do with some wider public interest. It does not. British aviation is chiefly about shifting millions of leisure travellers, mostly British tourists going overseas. Aviators hate to think of themselves as part of the tourism business, preferring to see themselves in flashy uniforms and associating with financiers and politicians on upgrades. A mere 13 per cent of British airport passengers are in any sense “business”, and that embraces company junkets, conferences and trips on expenses.
The industry may present Heathrow as the throbbing hub, the nerve centre, of the nation’s economy but only 30 per cent of its passengers are in any sense “business”, which is why it is designed like a supermarket. Gatwick and Stansted are barely 15 per cent business travellers. This whole enterprise is dedicated to inducing Britons to holiday abroad. The UK’s deficit on foreign tourism is £15 billion a year. This is hardly in the national interest. Indeed, if BAA really cared about Chinese and Arab tycoons using Heathrow “as a hub” it would not devote precious slots to Malaga and Orlando.
Why then did George Osborne last autumn promise to “explore all options on maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status”? Why did he repeat in his Budget, “we cannot cut ourselves off from the fastest-growing cities in the world”? Why did this follow David Cameron’s pledge that he was “not blind to the need to increase airport capacity” since Britain should not be “just a feeder route to bigger airports in Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Dubai”. The answer is that these phrases come straight from the handouts of political lobbyists for the airline companies.
There is much, so we often read, that could be done to increase Heathrow’s throughput for business travellers. Tourist destinations could shift elsewhere: it is absurd to have holiday-makers having to travel south and east to London to fly elsewhere in Europe. There is already a third runway near Heathrow, the Government’s private and VIP airport at Northolt. If Cameron is really short of “vital capacity” Northolt stands waiting. Runways could go over to “dual-use”, for landing and take-off, now being considered a quarter century after being first proposed.
If more capacity really is one day needed in the London area, there is no way it can ever be over the rooftops of west London. Gatwick and Stansted are in precious countryside which, as at Heathrow, ministers once pledged to leave alone.
It can hardly be more precious than the ears of millions. But no hindrance other than financial lies in the way of the much-vaunted Thames estuary site. In the long-distance future it must make sense to exile these vast developments as far from human habitation as possible.
What is wrong is for policy to veer this way and that in response to the pressure of special interests waving the flag and claiming to be what they are not. For the time being Downing Street is being led by the nose by lobbyists. That is why campaigners against the runway must sustain their countervailing
pressure. This runway will not vanish until buried at a crossroads on the A4, with garlic in its mouth and a stake through its heart. And possibly not even then.