The Price of Prosperity

You may not know it, but I occasionally get really nerdy about the aviation industry. And I mean REALLY nerdy.

This week has seen the final report of the UK Airports Commission, a investigation that has been running for several years now to study the viabilities of airport expansion in the UK as we hit passenger capacity in the next few decades. To the average flyer, it may not seem like we need more capacity; it doesn’t feel like our airports are congested. Certainly in my experience, the taxiing wait doesn’t feel longer than at any other major airports, which operate on a whole lot more runways than Heathrow does with its measly two.

In Europe, Heathrow is the busiest airport with the fewest runways, flying over 70m passengers. As The Guardian notes, this makes it an unbelievably efficient airport, especially given that flights between 11pm and 7am are non-existent or minimal. One of the reasons Heathrow is so busy is because it acts as a hub airport, routing traffic from shorter, local flights to longhaul; it is a frequent connection for those travelling from North America to Europe and beyond.

The problem is, with only two runways and night-flying restrictions, Heathrow’s slots are almost all taken, with barely any room for leeway. That means Heathrow could be operating at capacity very soon, and growth would plateau.

But London has several airports; why not just add a few runways to Gatwick or Stansted, say? Well, given that a lot of Heathrow’s passengers are merely connecting to another flight, expanding one of the smaller London airports wouldn’t actually help all that much. People don’t want to have to leave the terminal and traverse across London to catch their next flight; they want to step off the plane and walk a few hundred metres to their connection.

So the Airports Commission has finally reported back, and the conclusion is very obvious: build another runway at Heathrow and enable it to take another 250,000 flights a year.

Except, lots of London-based Tory MPs are complaining. Another runway at Heathrow means more flights descending over London, which leads to increased noise and air pollution. Nobody wants that.

Yet it is all a question of what we are willing to pay for prosperity. Expanding Heathrow creates jobs and boosts the economy. Are we willing to sacrifice air and noise quality if it means the UK becomes a more prosperous nation?

The alternatives are to remain at the current capacity, which would mean other European airports siphon the economic benefits of an ever-expanding aviation industry or (and this is the only ‘real’ alternative) build a larger hub airport somewhere else close to London – say the Thames Estuary or offshore Kent, which is where the majority of proposals have been (remember Boris Island?). It would be a whole lot more expensive, but would move the flightpaths out of London’s airspace and over the sea, where air and noise are less of an issue. The only real issue would be environmental; the Thames Estuary is teeming with bird life, which would make bird-strikes a common occurrence and potentially endanger certain species.

How much are we willing to give up for prosperity? And are we more willing to give up quality of life (air & noise at Heathrow) than money (building an all-new hub)? Either way, the Tories are going to lose all credibility if they ignore the recommendations of this independent study; you’d be very stupid to ask for advice and then give it the two-fingered salute just because it isn’t what you wanted to hear.


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