Observer: “We need a clear yes or no on Heathrow. Airlines can’t wait for ever”

Anticipating that the government’s consultation on aviation and air capacity may start sooner rather than later, the media and the aviation industry have ramped themselves up into a flurry of comment, lobbying, speculation, publicity and biased information. Commenting on the piece in the Observer, John Stewart writes on Heathrow expansion:  “Ministers have consistently ruled out expansion at the airport.  The problem is not a lack of clarity from Government but a refusal of much of the aviation industry to accept the Government’s decision.  That refusal is threatening to damage the economy of the country …because the industry has become paralysed by its desire for a 3rd runway. The Conservatives oppose a 3rd runway not just on environmental grounds …. but because they are unconvinced about the economic case.  

We need a clear yes or no on Heathrow. Airlines can’t wait for ever

24.6.2012 (Observer)
Will there be a third runway? An estuary airport? Regional expansion? The debate between industry and environmentalists will be bitter, but government indecision helps neither side

Lord Adonis, Labour’s short-lived transport secretary, admitted last week that he miscalculated in trying to push through a third runway at Heathrow. He took a gamble: he didn’t think the Tories would “engage in a massive act of self-mutilation so far as the country was concerned”. Had he not claimed it as a Labour project – had he punted it out to a review instead of letting it become an election issue – he believes they might be building it by now.

The coalition is certainly waiting and keeping stumm, but few in aviation would credit them with the level of strategy Adonis wishes he’d deployed. The sound of 737s taking off has barely masked the angry rumblings of the last few months – BAA pointing to the growth of rival hubs on the continent while Heathrow creaks at the seams; or Willie Walsh, the International Airlines Group (IAG) boss, denouncing the coalition from here to Beijing; or the general anguish at air passenger duty. [This article ignores the inconvenient fact that aviation pays no VAT and no fuel duty, so APD is charged to compensate for this loss]. The benefits of aviation to the nation rarely get any credit, the industry claims.

Capping it off is the complaint that the government won’t even say what its plans are. A long overdue policy framework is promised for summer, as it was in spring. Tomorrow, the biggest players in aviation will line up again to press for clarity, stressing the billions in GDP that air links underpin, and unveiling their own four tests of whether coalition policy will work.   It isn’t, officially, Heathrow drum-banging. But the loudest voices are BAA’s and IAG’s, and the debate as they frame it only points one way.

To the dismay of environmentalists, who thought they had laid the third runway to rest in 2010, its spectral claws are scrabbling at the surface – Nightmare in Hounslow, part two.

Like all good sequels, a new monster has been thrown into the mix: a Thames estuary airport that would mean roads, railways and buildings across the wetland habitats of thousands of protected birds – and supposedly sink the west London economy by ensuring Heathrow’s demise.

Why? Because the new orthodoxy – animating many Conservatives and alarming some, like Zac Goldsmith, who saw stopping expansion as more than just a vote-winner – is that extra capacity can’t be simply spread around: Britain needs one, bigger, hub, connecting enough passengers to make more and more routes financially feasible.

While the third runway is still officially off limits, David Cameron’s response to a recent Commons question was equivocal enough to be seized on by campaigners in both camps. Many believe transport secretary Justine Greening – as MP for Putney, implacably opposed to the third runway – is likely to walk (or, as she might put it, “re-mode”) to another ministry in an autumn reshuffle.

Dissenting voices question the big-hub thinking: Gatwick, now free from BAA, believes expansion could come its way, while Birmingham airport is promoting an alternative vision of a network of UK bases “to share the economic gain and environmental pain”. But they all want to know where they stand, so they can begin working towards whatever future the government will allow.

As Adonis points out, the benefits – as with high speed rail or other infrastructure investments – would accrue in the long term for the nation, while the grief would be local and immediate. Politicians must weigh up peaceful skies against a faltering economy. And the business opportunities BAA, Walsh and co see going begging may be real, but so are the environmental costs, however much new aircraft models cut the noise and CO2.

Cameron has executed a few U-turns; a 180-degree course change on aviation would be little surprise. As one industry insider puts it: they accept there will be constraints, but they can’t plan until they know what the parameters are going to be.

The four policy tests that aviation’s coalition of the impatient will unveil tomorrow might as well be: do the Conservatives mean it; can they deliver it; will the other lot try to stop it; and will anything actually happen before our international competitors leave us stranded on the tarmac?



Letter from John Stewart, in response to this article:

Dear Editor,

The Government has been very clear about its policy on Heathrow. (We need a clear yes or no on Heathrow. Airlines can’t wait for ever, 24/6/12).  Ministers have consistently ruled out expansion at the airport.  The problem is not a lack of clarity from Government but a refusal of much of the aviation industry to accept the Government’s decision.  That refusal is threatening to damage the economy of the country because, instead of working up business plans based on the assumption that Heathrow will not grow, the industry has become paralysed by its desire for a third runway.

That paralysis is also reflected in the way the industry has failed to come up with evidence-based arguments that the economy will suffer if Heathrow is not expanded.  The Conservatives in opposition opposed a third runway not just on environmental grounds, or for the sake of electoral advantage, but because they were unconvinced about the economic case.  David Cameron said in 2009: “There are now increasing grounds to believe that the economic case is flawed.”  The industry’s oft-repeated claims that Heathrow has fewer flights to the second-tier cities of China andIndia than its European competitors are no substitute for hard economic analysis.

There is no evidence to suggest that our international competitors are leaving us stranded on the tarmac.  London has the best international connections of any city in the world.  The Government can afford to take its time to get the right policy in place for the 21st century: one that is framed by climate change and quality of life considerations but which acknowledges the importance of aviation to the economy.

John Stewart

Chair HACAN and Chair of AirportWatch

(representing residents under the Heathrow flight paths)



Comment from an AirportWatch member:

I am dismayed that the Observer falls for the orthodoxy that the UK
cannot be “competitive” if it does not grow Heathrow. So the whole
country’s competitiveness is due to the cost and availability of
flights, not to the cost of labour, cost of raw materials, skills base,
innovation, financial services or anything else – just how many people
we can push through the cattle market of LHR?!  I think that is pretty
insulting to the rest of the UK populace, and pretty worrying that
presumably sensible and educated journalists can swallow this rubbish



One comment under the story says:

It is about time that the proper evidence was provided to support the great-hub orthodoxy rather than just taking it as a matter of faith from the High Priest of BA and his BAA acolytes.

Where are all these transit passengers that support the Heathrow flights coming from ? How many are there and what economic benefits to the nation (as opposed to the coffers of BA) do they provide ?

The 2007 CAA report on connecting passengers must be getting out of date now, but it was interesting to see how big the demand was then to travel from Manchester to Hong Kong via Heathrow. Surely people would prefer a direct flight – or perhaps they now route via Dubai to avoid the perils of Heathrow. The debate is so far lacking in independent information.