No Third Runway?

The 41st Annual Gloucestershire Vintage and Country Extravaganza will be held at South Cerney Airfield GL7 5DQ on Friday 31 July and Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 August 2015. Look out for the N gauge layout Terminal 1 in the model tent.Although locally focused, Gloucestershire Transport History has never been parochial and with the county’s commercial air access to the outside World beyond the British Isles being mainly channeled through large airports at Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff and London Heathrow it is only appropriate to comment on the state of this infrastructure.

In fact relatively little has changed since this topic was last discussed in depth in 2012 but I have just discovered the following article from The Week of 15 September that year which adds to the perspective already established.

“Point to Point” vs “Hub and Spoke”

The question of what to do about London’s airport capacity is being argued out against the backdrop of a much bigger debate over the future of air travel.  Since the 1960s, and the introduction of huge jets such as the Boeing 747, civil aviation has searched for the perfect balance of aircraft size, efficiency and range, weighing the convenience and cost of direct flights versus connecting flights.  This is how the “hub and spoke” model emerged: large jets carry passengers between the world’s major cities and hub airports, with smaller aircraft running “spoke” routes off them.

Air_Airbus_A380_SingaporeBut the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, are betting on alternative versions of the future.  Airbus, with its huge A380 (pictured above in Singapore Airlines colours), is in the hub and spoke camp.

Air_Boeing 787 Dreamliner_demonstratorBut Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is the world’s first medium sized passenger aircraft to have the range and fuel efficiency to make hundreds of long distance “point to point” flights economical.  Boeing says that the 787 will connect at least 450 pairs of cities, particularly from the USA to Asia, and the Western US to Europe, which have relied on connecting flights in the past.  In other words, with 851 Dreamliners already ordered, hubs such as Heathrow could end up far less important than they used to be.

Are London’s airports full?

As a group, no.  London has five airports, and four of them have room for many more flights.  Gatwick operates at 78% capacity, Stansted 50% and London City Airport 56%.  Luton has announced plans to at least double its capacity without adding another runway or terminal.  The great exception is Heathrow.  It is by far London’s largest and most important airport: almost a third of the UK’s 235 million annual air passengers pass through Heathrow, flying to 183 worldwide destinations.  More than a million tonnes of freight – much of it valuable – also travel through the airport.  It might be the single most important piece of travel infrastructure in the UK.  It is also completely – well, 99% -full.

Can’t the other airports share the load?

Not as things stand.  Heathrow is what aviation experts call a “hub”.  The whole idea of hub airports is that they are enormous, and by amassing enough passengers, airlines and possible destinations all in one place, you can fill planes up sufficiently to make it economical to fly them from one side of the World to another.  Hubs are the vital cogs in global aviation and Heathrow is Britain’s hub: 35% of its passengers are there to transfer from one flight to the other.  For years the World’s airlines have queued up to pay for the profitable slots on its two runways and five terminals, giving British people and businesses, in turn, access to almost every city on Earth.  With Heathrow unable to expand however, airlines and passengers – especially from the World’s growing economies – are feared to be heading for other hubs.

Which hubs?

Heathrow’s rivals are just a few hundred miles away.  Frankfurt airport  (four runways), Paris Charles de Gaulle (four) and Amsterdam’s Schipol airport (six) all operate at about 75% capacity and are better placed to serve the expanding demand for flights to the world’s growing economies in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  Charles de Gaulle offers 3 500 flights a year to Chinese cities to Heathrow’s 1 700.  “We are London’s second hub and we call one of our runways Heathrow’s third runway.” says Jos Nijhuis, the CEO of Schipol.  As Heathrow fills up, it is missing out on precious “connectivity” – a measure of its access to foreign markets – itself a threat to London’s long-term economic future.  Britain does 20 times more trade with emerging economies that have a direct flight to the UK than those that do not.

So what is the answer?

Britain’s aviation industry – led by British Airways and the British Airports Authority (BAA), the private company that owns Heathrow – have been trying to expand the airport for many years.  In 2009 the Labour transport secretary Geoff Hoon approved a third 2 200m long runway and a sixth terminal that would increase the total number of take-offs and landings – or “Air Traffic Movements” (ATMs) – at Heathrow from 480 000 a year to 600 000, an increase in capacity of 25%.  In 2010, however, David Cameron and Nick Clegg reversed this decision.  “We will cancel the third runway at Heathrow.” they said in the coalition agreement.

What is the case against it?

First, people in west London have had enough.  Starting life as a troop-carrying airbase (RAF Heston) in WWII and mushrooming from there, Heathrow has always been, in Boris Johnson’s words, “a planning mistake”.  Owing to the prevailing wind, 70% of flights at Heathrow take off or land towards the west: that creates a constant queue of aircraft descending over London.  Around 700 000 people suffer from the resulting aircraft noise (28% of all those in Europe so affected), and some 35 000 are exposed to chemical pollution.  A third runway would mean a third flight path over London, more noise and more fumes – all this for no good reason, say the critics.

But wouldn’t it help meet the rising demand for air travel?

The assumption that air travel will continue, as if naturally, to increase is misplaced, say the critics.  The Government has already reduced its forecast of passenger numbers in 2050 by 10% since 2006 and that’s before factoring in a future of rising oil prices and environmental controls – not to mention a shift in the aviation industry away from hub airports.  Equally misguided is the assumption that increased traffic will boost economic growth.  Only 15% of passengers at London’s airports (37%) are on business.  The real engine of growth in air travel in the last 20 years has been mass tourism: the number of British families on low and middle incomes flying abroad grew by 50% between 1996 and 2009.  Since they spend their pounds abroad, a rise in their number would, if anything, depress growth not increase it.

But wouldn’t a third runway ease congestion at Heathrow?

There are other better ways of doing so, say opponents.  Why not, for a start, reconfigure direct flights to Orlando or the Med to another airport?  Or adopt some of the measures that Heathrow has already experimented with to ease congestion during the Olympics?  These have included simultaneous landings and take offs on its two runways.  A move to full “mixed mode” (using runways for landings and takeoffs at the same time) could increase the airport’s capacity by up to 25% by some estimates – about the same as a third runway.  Then there’s the option of radically improving connections between London’s five airports, possibly via new high speed rail links  Finally, there is the dramatic solution, which would cost about £ 40 billion: build a new hub airport.  This is the option beloved of Johnson, who has sworn to oppose any Heathrow expansion.  But it’s unlikely to happen at his proposed site -an artificial “Boris Island” in the Thames Estuary.  A sanctuary for migrating birds, it is, as the head of Britain’s air traffic control service sees it, “the very worst spot” in the Southeast for a new airport.

1 Comment

  1. alan | |

    Further information about a plan to combine a longer, mixed mode northern runway with a road and rail transport hub nearby can be found at

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