The Big Question: What would a third runway mean for Heathrow, and is it really necessary?

12.11.2008   (Independent)

By Michael Savage

Why are we asking this now?

The battle over the expansion of Heathrow airport, which would see the number
flights at the airport increase from 480,000 to 700,000, is hotting up. While
the Government is in favour of expanding the airport with the addition of a third
runway and possible sixth terminal, opposition to the new runway is mounting,
even within its own ranks.

A debate on the new runway was called yesterday after around 50 Labour MPs backed
a Parliamentary motion opposing expansion. Many have environmental concerns, while
others in marginal constituencies surrounding Heathrow fear that its local unpopularity
could be enough to lose them their seat at the next general election. Outside
Parliament, local residents already driven mad by the constant drone of planes
flying over their homes gathered to protest about the Government’s apparent determination
to go ahead with the third runway.

While some want to limit Heathrow to its current size, others are even suggesting
Heathrow should be honourably “retired”, and a new airport built in the Thames
estuary, where residents will not be affected, traffic congestion will be less
severe and planes will not be flying over densely populated areas.

Why does the Government say a third runway is needed?

The most commonly used argument supporting an extra runway is growing demand.
Passenger numbers are set to double over the next 20 years, but Heathrow is already
working at almost full capacity. Despite being the world’s busiest airport, it
is unusual in only having two runways (a third, smaller strip is only used in
emergencies). That is the same number as it had when it opened for its first commercial
flight on 31 May 1946. Most other major airports have at least three. Some have
four or five.

The new runway would allow an extra 220,000 flights a year to Heathrow’s capacity
a year by 2030, contributing as much as £9bn to the UK’s economy. The business
lobby say that preventing a third runway will mean that many business travellers,
who use Heathrow as a connecting hub to reach destinations outside the UK, switch
to alternatives such as Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt.

Who supports the plan?

The biggest cheerleaders for the third runway are BAA, the company which operates
Heathrow, and British Airways, which has the plum take-off slots at the airport.
Writing in The Independent last month, BA’s chief executive Willy Walsh said:
“No new runways have been built at major south-east airports in the past 60 years.
In the meantime, air travel has increased exponentially and is now as vital to
the success of the UK as the shipping lanes were in the early industrial era.”

Ahead of yesterday’s debate, the prime minister also made the case for the new
runway, citing “the fact that in Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, there are either
four or five runways there to deal with the traffic”. His words have been backed
by other ministers, who have talked about the need to take “tough decisions” to
keep Britain competitive.

Which groups are opposing it?

In addition to a well-organised residents’ campaign against the expansion, local
authorities in the area have also formed an alliance to oppose it. On top of that,
the Government has some critics closer to home. As well as the 50 rebels within
its ranks, cabinet ministers also have concerns. Hilary Benn, Harriet Harman,
Ed Miliband and David Miliband are all said to have expressed concerns, particularly
over the new runway’s environmental impact.

What are the main objections to the runway?

The Government’s White Paper included the caveat that the final go-ahead would
only be given if the runway met the necessary noise and environmental standards.
Critics say it will not. Even the Environment Agency has said that nitrogen dioxide
(NO2) emissions produced by the addition of the thirds runway would cause Heathrow
to breach EU regulations. The government would almost certainly have to ask the
EU to delay implementation of new NO2 limits. Questions have also been asked about
the equipment used to guage noise.

The extra runway would also cause major upheaval in an already heavily built-up
area of West London, with 700 homes having to be demolished to make room. The
roads in the area, which already struggle to cope with the traffic heading for
the airport, would face even worse gridlock.

There are also holes in the economic arguments for expansion. Figures published
this week showed that more than a third of passengers using Heathrow were simply
doing so as a point to transfer, and contributing nothing to the UK’s economy.
Reducing the number of transferring passengers could remove the need for an extra
runway, opponents claim.

Any other issues?

Part of the Government’s evidence that a bigger Heathrow could meet noise limits
is that a model of plane, much quieter than those currently landing at Heathrow,
will be used in the future. There’s only one problem – it doesn’t exist yet. But
supporters say it is fair to predict that quieter planes will be around by the
time a new runway is completed.

“Technology, such as the new A380 super jumbo, shows that planes are getting
bigger but are not getting noisier,” said Roger Wiltshire, secretary general of
the British Air Transport Association. “It is not an unreasonable assumption to
make that future technology will help Heathrow meet noise limits.”

What are the alternatives to a third runway?

After a long period of silence on the issue, the Conservatives are now vehemently
against the third runway. Teresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, has
gone as far as warning companies not sign any contracts related to building the
runway. She has been assured by her legal team that she can rip them up should
the Conservatives win the next election.

In place of the third runway, the Conservatives want to link Heathrow up to a
high-speed rail network, leading to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. But some
claim that they have missed the point – only three per cent of Heathrow flights
head to Manchester or Leeds.

Are there any other solutions?

It may seem like a distant possibility, but support for replacing Heathrow with
a new airport in the Thames estuary is gaining ground. Its most powerful supporter
is the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is said to be keen to appoint the British
civil engineers who helped design Hong Kong’s island airport to conduct a feasibility
study into the idea.

Unlike Heathrow, its location would let it operate around the clock, while it
could be linked to the high-speed rail line at St Pancras and to ferry ports.
But as Boris’s own party opposes the scheme and tens of billions would be needed
to fund the project, it still has a long way to go before becoming a realistic

During the Commons debate yesterday, Geoff Hoon said that the prospect of building
a new airport had been looked at, but was dismissed because of fears over transport
links, bird strike, the impact on the environment and raising the money for the
plan. Time will tell if Boris can prove him wrong.

Should a third runway be added to the world’s busiest airport?


* Demand for air travel is set to double in a generation; Heathrow’s existing
runways will not be able to cope

* Heathrow – with only two runways since it began in 1946 – needs at least three
to compete with other airports

* Its two runways operate at more than 98% of their capacity; delays have serious
knock-on effects


* Heathrow was chosen as a good spot for planes to be scrambled to protect London
during the war, but it’s a terrible place for a commercial airport

* The Government will be in breach of NO2 limits if the runway goes ahead

* Opposition to the new runway goes all the way to the top; Cabinet members have
voiced their concern

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