Heathrow-on-Sea set for takeoff

12.7.2009   (Sunday Times)

Looking out from Southend pier, the Thames estuary is a hub of activity.   On
a busy day its grey waters are filled with nearly 100 vessels a day, from 1,000ft
container ships bearing tons of clothes and other consumer goods to oil tankers,
passenger ferries, yachts and speedboats.

If Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has his way these ships will soon be joined
by the roar of Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s landing at a Thames estuary airport.

The airport, which would cost an estimated £40 billion, would span four runways across two islands and operate 24 hours a day, with landings over water to minimise disruption to residents.  It would be
linked to mainland terminals by either bridges or tunnels, and powered by giant
water turbines.

When this newspaper first mooted the idea of an estuary airport 18 months ago
as an alternative to the proposed third runway at Heathrow, it was dismissed by
many as fantasy.     Johnson, however, took it seriously and in January he commissioned
a study into its technical feasibility by Douglas Oakervee, the engineer who mas-terminded Hong Kong’s international airport island in
the 1990s.

On Wednesday Oakervee will discuss his initial findings with a panel of experts
at the Institution of Civil Engineers led by Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist.     He will submit
his research to Johnson three weeks later.

Oakervee did not wish to comment.     However, according to a source familiar with
the report he has concluded that a four-runway island airport is feasible and
could be built in less than 10 years.

Johnson still faces a fight on all fronts.   Politically, he is at loggerheads
with both the government, which remains steadfastly committed to a third runway
at Heathrow, and his own party, which has rejected both a third runway at Heathrow
and an airport in the Thames estuary in favour of high-speed rail.

He will also have to fight the environmental lobby, which is alarmed at the impact an airport would have
on the 200,000 migrating birds
that make the estuary their home in winter.

Hydrology experts are concerned that an island airport could impede the river’s flow, while air traffic experts are worried about how to fit in all the planes.

Johnson is not, however, easily deterred.    He believes Heathrow is a "planning
error of the 1960s" because of its proximity to London and should ultimately be
phased out.  The addition of a third runway, which will see the number of flights
rise to 702,000 a year, will increase noise pollution and the risk of an accident
over the capital.

"My view is that in the long term we’re not just going to have to do high-speed
rail, which I’m in favour of, we’re going to have to look at a potential solution
in the Thames estuary," said Johnson.

"On Wednesday Doug Oakervee, a civil engineering genius, will explain how it’s
easier to build an airport in the estuary than it was in Hong Kong or Singapore.  
 Air quality in London would be completely imperilled by a third runway at Heathrow.  
 It’s environmentally nonsensical."

EVEN though the plans for the Thames estuary are at a preliminary stage, a vision
of the airport is already beginning to take shape.   According to sources familiar
with the plan, while the precise location is undecided, Oakervee believes the
environmental impact of the airport will be lessened if it is build across two
islands, rather than one.

Each island would be 2.8 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, with the gap between
them reducing the impact on the flow of the river and enabling more aircraft movements.  
Building on two islands would also enable construction to be phased.

Passengers would shuttle between the two islands either in a tunnel below the
river or on bridges running from Essex on the north bank to Kent in the south.

A terminal in Kent would be connected to the Crossrail line, whisking passengers
to central London in 35 minutes, and also to the high-speed Channel tunnel rail
link, reducing the need for many shorthaul flights.     The terminal would be accessible
by road through a connection with the nearby M2.     A smaller terminal in Essex
is also under consideration.

Underwater turbines, built in lagoons either side of the airport, could generate
nearly all the airport’s electricity by harnessing the tides.

While Johnson envisaged an airport in the Thames estuary as a replacement for
Heathrow, Oakervee believes they could operate in tandem and has been discussing how to accommodate them both with NATS, the national
air traffic controller, and Eurocontrol, its European partner.

"You couldn’t just abandon Heathrow overnight, so there may be a case where you
can operate the two airports quite successfully," said the source.    "The other
thing is that there is no statutory instrument in place to close Heathrow.    Boris
can’t do it."

How easy is it to build an airport in the middle of a fast-flowing estuary?  
 According to engineers, the process itself is relatively simple.

Tom Smit, director of special projects for Royal Haskoning, a Dutch firm of engineers
working on plans for an island airport near Amsterdam, described it as "a piece
of cake".

Hundreds of 60ft blocks of concrete are sunk into the riverbed, forming a dyke
around the site of the proposed airport.   The dyke is then drained of water and
filled with bricks and sand, and an airport is built on top.    In the Far East,
five island airports have already been built, including Kansai airport near Osaka,
Japan, and Hong Kong International.

Oakervee believes that from an engineering perspective the Thames estuary will
prove an easier proposition than Hong Kong. The source said: "The geological conditions
are favourable for it [the airport]. In Hong Kong there were much greater depths
of marine muds. In the estuary you’re on chalk much earlier."

While building the platform itself may be relatively easy, there are still significant
obstacles to overcome.     One will be any adverse impact on the flow of the Thames, which could lead to erosion, flooding
and the loss of marine habitats

Oakervee has been in discussions with HR Wallingford, a firm in Oxfordshire that
is an expert on the flow of water in the Thames estuary.     Mike Dearnaley, a director,
said the airport’s location would be a key factor.

He said:     "If it’s downstream of Canvey island, which it will be, then the blockage
to the tides that such a structure will cause would change the flow but not create
a huge impact upstream.    You could find several locations that would be acceptable."

The airport would also need to steer clear of the estuary’s five main shipping lanes, which see more than 37,000 ship movements a year.

Roy Stanbrook, a harbourmaster at the Port of London Authority, said:    "We are
the second busiest port in the UK, supplying millions of people with food, fuel
and goods.     It’s vital that planes don’t disrupt the shipping lanes."

The issue most likely to stop the airport, however, is birds.     In winter, the
Thames estuary is home to 200,000 migrating birds, while it also contains eight
sites of special scientific interest, three special protection areas and several
big wetlands.   The RSPB wildlife pressure group is vehemently opposed to any development.

A spokesman said:     "An airport in the Thames estuary is a complete nonstarter
ecologically, environmentally and economically.   An airport would damage or destroy
huge areas of legally protected habitat and present a significantly higher risk
of bird-strike than any other UK airport."

However, according to Sir Peter Hall, president of the Town and Country Planning
Association, who has contributed to Oakervee’s report, the risk is overplayed.  
 He said: "It cannot be beyond our technological capacities in the 21st century
to say that this has to govern everything else.

"There are international airports by the sea or indeed built on water all over
the world.    I believe that what Doug is going to say is that it’s doable and
needs to be taken further for more study.   There is no show-stopper.

"There are issues that need to be studied in more depth, but there is nothing
to say this airport cannot be built."     By advocating plans for a Thames estuary
airport, Johnson finds himself in a political no-man’s land.     Labour is doggedly
sticking to its plan for a third runway at Heathrow, while the Conservatives are
relying on rail and have ruled out airport expansion.

Dig a little deeper, however, and there may be reasons for the mayor to be cheerful.  
Ferrovial, the Spanish owner of airport operator BAA, is laden with debt and struggling
in the economic downturn.     Seven months after being given the green light by the government, BAA has yet
to submit a planning application for a third runway at Heathrow.

Meanwhile there is growing disquiet among Labour ranks.     Nick Raynsford, a former
planning minister and a supporter of a Thames estuary airport, is convinced both
the government and BAA are biding time on Heathrow until the next election.    
He said: "I don’t think the government’s position has changed but a very significant
number of Labour MPs are uncomfortable about Heathrow, and if anything the numbers
have grown.

"In the scenario following a general election whoever forms a government will
need to review the position again.

"We can continue to operate with existing capacity for a while but we will need
to make better choices in the future to avoid the serious problems that are inherent
in the location of Heathrow.     I never thought that a third runway would be built
and frankly I’m not surprised that they [BAA] haven’t submitted an application."

David Cameron, the Tory leader, and Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary,
have made their opposition to Heathrow an electoral issue.
    Yet they are unwilling to jeopardise the environmental vote by even countenancing
a Thames estuary airport.

The sheer cost of the project is another big problem.   The £40 billion price tag includes the cost of extending the high-speed rail network, widening and extending
the nearby M2 and extending Crossrail to the Kent terminal from southeast London.  
 It compares with a £13 billion estimate for building a runway at Heathrow.

Johnson, however, hopes he can use his combination of political clout and charm
to persuade the Tories to make the estuary airport an option in the wake of the
general election.     Last week he said:    "The big advantage [of a Thames estuary
airport] is that you don’t have to fly over a central conurbation to get there.

"Dave and Theresa are absolutely right to ask about the capacity issue – do we
need a new airport, can we cope with it all by high-speed rail?    My long-term
hunch, looking at the graph of aviation use over the last 50 years, is that we
are going to need much more capacity. I hope to persuade my colleagues."








‘Chaplain’ from Canterbury seems to think Manston has the longest runway in the
UK – it actually has the 14th longest.   Planes take off over a Victorian seaside
town, Ramsgate, with more listed buildings than Bath.   Nowhere near London, its
expansion would be an environmental and commercial disaster.


Richard Eastcliff, Ramsgate, UK



This is the only sensible way forward for airport expansion in the South East.  
Ask anyone under flight paths in London, near Gatwick or Stanstead if they want
more expansion there.   A hub airport in The Thames Estuary will allow for 24hr
landing & take off.  Birds can be managed & catered for.


J. Marsh, London, UK



This is hilarious!     A 40 billion pound plan “set for take off” with no financing,
no government support, no industry and only the backing of Boffo the clown?    
Come on!     This ‘campaign’ has less credibility than the Mail’s wheelie bin lunacy.


Tom, London,