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Three ways to avoid Heathrow third runway

October 25, 2016

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2016 3:43 pm

    Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary was just on the radio saying that the govt should approve new runways at 3 airports. Climate change aside, he has a point. This is all about lobbying and influence and who’s dodgy claim of future GDP is the biggest.

    If we had a solid global plan for limiting aviation emissions, then we could approve all that meet local planning requirements (which it appears Heathrow cannot), and to then let the market decide.

    On O’Leary’s measures, if we must choose one, which we often need to when it comes to infrastructure, then perhaps sealed bids for a cap on landing charges would do the job.

    Govt/Heathrow claims to add £xx billion to GDP are insane if that includes counting it once to ‘invest’ in building it, and then counting it again as the inflated landing charges to recover the costs!

  2. October 25, 2016 4:14 pm

    Stephen How did you feel about the expansion of Bristol Airport and it’s move to Filton when it was up for debate ?

    • October 26, 2016 9:33 am

      Filton was certainly a better choice for Bristol’s airport, with proximity to two motorways and a rail line. But that choice was made long before I had any local political power or influence! I also think it may prove to be a mistake to close the airfield a couple of years ago. It made Filton less attractive to Airbus and now that we (probably) are heading for a hard Brexit its loss could be even more damaging.

  3. rob1parsons permalink
    October 26, 2016 10:01 am

    To add to point 1, build some proper railways from the regional airports to London, and it won’t take much longer than getting there from Heathrow. Plus all the other benefits of having good rail links.

  4. October 26, 2016 2:13 pm

    Rob, I certainly think there’s a good case for a rail link to Bristol Airport. It’s only about 3 miles at most from the main line between Bristol and Weston.

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