A runway for jobs? It’s time aviation’s bluff was called

14.1.2009   (Guardian – Comment)

“I would flatten rare toads for growth – but for all the airline lobby’s cant,
there is no wider economic case for expanding Heathrow”

by Simon Jenkins

The boss of BAA, Colin Matthews, said this week that a third runway at Heathrow would “only
go ahead if strict environmental limits are met”.     What does he mean, if?   They
are not met and he knows it.   Nothing on earth is going to stop him wanting his
runway.

Meanwhile Whitehall is witnessing a truly bone-crunching fight between the immovable
object of public interest and the irresistible force of Big Carbon. I am sceptical
of most policies put forward in the cause of global warming but for aviation to
plead its green credentials is like big tobacco claiming that smoking is good
for your health.

The prime minister has again postponed taking a decision, but that will not stop
him meekly championing the carbon lobby by parroting Matthews’s nonsense to reluctant
Labour MPs.   He will waffle about “insisting” that the airport and airlines “take
steps” to reduce carbon emissions. He will promise that a third runway will not
go ahead if they “breach air pollution and noise levels”, or if Heathrow fails
a punctuality test.

What will Brown do if these conditions are not met?  Will he come from retirement,
break up the tarmac with a drill and rebuild Harmondsworth?  This is infantile
politics, but it will doubtless dupe the ever-spineless Labour backbenchers.

Brown will do what his predecessors have done, which is lie.     In the 1960s ministers
promised “for all time” that there would be no expansion of Heathrow.    It expanded.    
When T4 opened in 1978 there was another promise of no expansion, and a cap of
275,000 flights. The pledge was broken within a year.  At the time of T5 the cap
was raised to 480,000, and the prime minister and cabinet agreed that a third
runway would be “totally unacceptable”.

That promise is now broken.   In 2006 the transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, promised
that a new runway would be a short, domestic one, with flights only over countryside
to the west.   She also promised carbon and pollution limits.   Those promises have
been broken.   The government wants almost to double the number of Heathrow flights
to 700,000, an astonishing increase on the present chaos, and careless of the
impact on west London or its infrastructure.   This is an orgy of planning abuse.
 No Heathrow promise is worth a bucket of spit.

Ministers lie because they know they will be out of office, or out of sight,
when their pledges are broken.  They know that no government can bind its successor
and that Big Carbon, like Big Pharma, always gets its way.   When we were young
we were told that new airports could go anywhere because new planes would be so
clean and quiet that nobody would mind.    It was all rubbish.

The biggest lie is that a third runway is about something called “the business
economy”.   The BAA lobby has conned the CBI, London First and even the unions
into believing this, fobbing them off with a factoid that the runway would “create
50,000 jobs”.   So would rebuilding Britain’s mental health infrastructure, which
would thus also be “good for business”.

I am unsentimental about much economic growth.  I would flatten a rare orchid
or a natterjack toad or even Harmondsworth tithe barn if the wealth thus liberated
were overwhelming.   With Heathrow’s third runway nothing is overwhelming except
the prospective environmental damage.

Air travel is a discretionary luxury whose tax position and cost externalities
have long been indulged by ministers (and transport department officials) because
the industry is glamorous and shrewdly gives ministers and business journalists
upgrades.  No fewer than 87% of UK international passengers are “leisure and tourism”,
including almost every reasonably prosperous Briton.   Even at Heathrow, only a
third of users give business as their purpose of travel.  I would bet most of
that is a perk, a conference or a holiday on expenses.

In an electronic age, flights truly “essential to the British economy” must be
minuscule.   The lobby’s Jo Valentine protests that “hologram videoconferencing
still can’t beat a good old-fashioned handshake”.   That is hardly a crushing argument,
and how many trips are for a handshake? Commercial London boomed in recent decades
despite its appalling air facilities, because in truth they had nothing to do
with the case.

The “hub” argument was recently shot to pieces by the former BA boss Bob Ayling.  
 It might help domestic tourists escape the rain, he said, but transfers spend
little or nothing in London and yield no external benefits other than to airline
profits.  The biggest growth in air travel has been in non-hub cheap flights.  
And as a CAA survey in 2006 showed, no-frills carriers have not brought new social
classes into air travel but rather increased the number of holidays taken by the
better-off.

The tourist industry is important, but most airline users are outbound leisure
travellers.   Curbing such travel, through taxation or slot rationing, would benefit
domestic tourism.   It would help the balance of payments, cut the fastest growing
area of carbon emissions and reduce airport congestion, and thus the crowding
out of mostly “business” flights.     It could be used to favour inbound tourism
from origins such as the US and the far east.  

There is no economic case for a third runway, rather an economic case against
one.    Air travel is not a cause of wealth but a consequence of it.

Disentangling self-interest from public interest is near impossible, but we can
pick the argument clean of cant and greed. Aviation benefits from a similar government
indulgence to that visited on cars in the 1960s and 70s, when investment was based
on “predict and provide”.   Car travel is now rationed by taxation, price and congestion,
whatever the business outcome.     Aviation’s bluff must soon be called.

The row at Heathrow is the drawn-out consequence of political cowardice in not
building in the Thames estuary in the 70s and not expanding Gatwick or Stansted.  
Heathrow may be convenient for west London but otherwise it is an awful place
for an airport, worse even than New York’s La Guardia.

Airports have to be subject to planning.     Most of Heathrow’s domestic and tourist
flights should be moved.    It can then have space for predominantly business destinations
and thus for the rich, who should pay the full cost of their privileged location.

But don’t bet on this happening.   Gordon Brown and New Labour have never knowingly
stood up to a big commercial interest.   They are unlikely to start now.

simon.jenkins@guardian.co.uk

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/14/aviation-jobs-heathrow-baa