Three ways to avoid Heathrow third runway
So after a couple of decades of delay, the Conservative government has announced that Heathrow Airport will be expanded with a third runway. This will lead to thousands of extra flights in and out of London, already one of the world’s busiest airports.
This is a terrible decision. It’s bad for the environment as extra flights will lead to more localised pollution and atmospheric damage. Congestion will increase on the M4 and M25. It’s bad for the nations and regions of the UK as yet another infrastructure decision favours London. The economy will be further unbalanced. It’s bad for politics too. The Conservative Party fought the 2010 and 2015 general elections opposing the original Labour plan for a third runway. The Coalition kept that promise. The current Conservative government has a Commons majority and the current and former Prime Minister both made strong personal pledges to block a third runway. People will now become even more cynical about politicians.
I know that Heathrow has problems, running round most of the clock at full capacity. But instead of increasing that capacity, why not reduce the demand for using Heathrow? This could be done in at least three ways:-
1. Divert more flights to regional airports. If I want a direct flight to New York I can’t go from my nearest airports at Bristol or Cardiff. For all the popular long haul destinations I have to go via London Heathrow. Travelling to busy west London is a major inconvenience and is even worse for people from the far south west of England or South Wales. Why can’t we reduce the pressure on Heathrow by having more direct links to the world’s leading hubs from Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester? It would be no threat to Heathrow’s status as one of the world’s hub airports. But it would be a major boost to regional economies outside London and the overheated South East. To force airlines to make the shift and make it attractive to passengers there should be a major tax incentive. Long haul air passenger duty is currently £150 per passenger. Halving it for non South East airports and increasing it for London would surely lead to a major change in behaviour by airlines and passengers.
2. Switch air freight to regional airports. About two thirds of the UK’s import and export of physical goods by air currently goes via Heathrow. This is mad. Smaller goods go in the holds of passanger aircraft so a passenger switch would also facilitate a goods shift. Larger goods with dedicated flights should also be switched, either by a new tax or legislation on landing fees. Again, this would be a major boost to the regional economies outside London, with growth in logistics management.
3. Switching aircraft maintenance away from Heathrow. More capacity could be freed up at Heathrow’s existing two runways and other on the ground facilities if non immediate repairs and maintenance were shifted to other locations. The aircraft maintenance, repairs and overhaul business is worth billions to the UK economy. The West of England and South Wales is already the main alternative to London. Why not switch most of the business to areas that already have a strong engineering skills base in aero-engineering?
There’s a much wider debate about the crazy economics of aviation and the environmental implications of expanding flight capacity. The taxation of aviation fuel, the charging and allocation of landing slots and improvements in air traffic control to reduce delay and excessive fuel burning can all play a part.
But today’s decision to expand Heathrow will lead to more flights in order to justify the billions that will be spent on building a third runway. This will be bad for the UK as a whole, further unbalancing our economy and undermining our climate change reduction obligations. It’s a decision that was avoidable and must now be resisted.