Lobbyists raise pressure on Heathrow

13.1.2009   (Financial Times)

By Kevin Done and Jim Pickard

Business and trade union leaders and the aviation industry stepped up pressure
on ministers yesterday to give the go-ahead this week for a third runway and sixth
terminal at Heathrow.

Even if the government approves the £9bn scheme in the coming days – subject
to strict environmental conditions being met – BAA, the airport’s owner, and British
Airways, Heathrow’s biggest operator, say a third runway is unlikely to be in
operation before 2020.

Environmental campaigners and local residents staged protests at the airport
last night, while Gordon Brown, prime minister, told a meeting of the parliamentary
Labour party he would meet MPs to address concerns over the controversial project.  
More than 50 Labour backbenchers are opposed to a third runway but are not expected
to be given the chance to vote against it.   Mr Brown told the PLP that the decision
was a difficult balancing act between the economy and the environment.

Business is pressing the government to allow more intensive use of the existing
two runways first.

Lobby groups say that initial extra capacity should be used to improve existing
operations at Heathrow rather than adding flights. Some organisations, including
London First, say the punctuality of services should be brought into line with
other leading airports before airlines expand their networks.

Baroness Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First, said: “Business needs
to fly and will do so long after the current economic turmoil. A third runway
will be an asset to London and to the UK economy, if it comes with the right conditions
– no new flights until delays have fallen, a tough independent environmental monitor
and world-class customer service.”

Flight punctuality has improved in recent months, as operations at the new Terminal
5 have stabilised.   But Colin Matthews, BAA’s chief executive, said a system of
punctuality targets had not yet been agreed with the airlines or with the Civil
Aviation Authority regulator.

The aviation industry wants the current system of runway alternation (so-called
segregated mode) to end to create up to 10% more capacity on the existing  2 runways
before a 3rd is built.

At present, landing aircraft switch runways at 3pm each day to give residents
closest to Heathrow a half-day’s break from the noise. Under the proposed system
of mixed-mode operation, both runways would be used for take-offs and landings
throughout the day.

Leaders of 22 councils opposed to Heathrow’s expansion warned ministers yesterday
that expanding the airport would cause “irreparable damage to the quality of life
for people under runway flightpaths”.

The 2M group of authorities said the Department for Transport had failed to prove
that adding flights could be achieved without breaching European Union air pollution
limits or making noise worse.

Greenpeace will announce today that it has bought a plot of land crucial to the
third runway in an attempt to slow the project.   (More on this story).

The environmental group has been joined by celebrities including Emma Thompson,
the actress, and by Zac Goldsmith, the Tories’ environmental adviser, to purchase
the land, which could be divided into thousands of sub-plots – owned by separate

Meanwhile, signs of discomfort are emerging among the Conservatives over opposition
to expansion. Some MPs fear the Tory approach will set the party at loggerheads
with business.

Additional reporting by Alex Barker