(photo: Heathrow Airport)
Tue 17 Dec 2013 – The economic imperative to resolve the UK’s airport capacity problem is strengthening by the year but aviation expansion must be set in the context of the climate change challenge and local environmental impacts, says the Chairman of the Airports Commission, Sir Howard Davies, in his foreword to its much anticipated interim report published today. The report accepts a need for a new runway in the UK southeast by 2030 and has shortlisted two options for an additional runway at Heathrow and a further option of a new runway at Gatwick. Although not shortlisted, a completely new Thames Estuary airport has not been ruled out but requires further assessment by the Commission. The UK aviation industry has broadly welcomed the report but environmental groups have opposed any expansion.
In the 228-page report, Davies said the world had changed since previous reviews of UK airport capacity, with globalisation and technological innovation driving an increase in cross-border flows of goods, services and people.
“There is a broad consensus that the UK must further develop its links with the fastest growing regions of the world,” he said. “Whether that involves growth in exports of goods and services or of inbound tourists and students, aviation connectivity seems likely to be an important element in the mix. And around six million Britons travel abroad each year, the great majority by air.
“But there is also a growing realisation that the expansion of aviation must be set in the context of a comprehensive approach to the challenge of climate change. As the other sectors of the economy decarbonise more rapidly, aviation emissions will become a larger proportion of the total. And local environmental impacts, notably the nuisance and health implications of noise, must be weighed in the balance.”
Davies said the Commission had assessed the way the aviation world was changing and had identified a realistic set of options for future expansion that provided a credible case for commercially viability and sustainable development.
The Commission believes one net additional runway is required in the London/Southeast England region to come into operation by 2030, by which time Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Luton airports are predicted to be at full capacity under a new set of forecasts it has developed. By 2050, or possibly earlier, it indicates a second additional runway will be required.
Redistributing excess demand to other less congested airports in other UK regions, perhaps through incentives or congestion charges, does not appear a realistic option, according to the Commission.
It is not wholly convinced of the argument put forward by industry that the UK primarily needs more hub capacity. “The Commission does not believe there is a binary choice between providing additional hub capacity or additional point-to-point capacity. Instead, the optimal approach is to continue to invest in an airport system that caters for a range of airline business models,” it says, believing this should be left to a competitive airports system and airline choice to determine how to use the available capacity.
In the short term, the Commission recommends a range of measures the aviation sector can make to improve the operational efficiency of UK airports and airspace. These include an optimisation strategy to support airport collaborative decision making; airspace changes supporting performance-based navigation (PBN); enhanced en-route traffic management; and time-based separation. Other recommendations include a package of surface transport improvements to make airports with spare capacity more attractive to airlines and passengers. It also supports the creation of an Independent Aviation Noise Authority to provide expert and impartial advice about aircraft noise impacts.
The Commission received 52 proposals for addressing the UK’s airport capacity shortfall, over 40 of which suggested building additional runway infrastructure. These have been narrowed down to two potential sites – Heathrow and Gatwick – for further analysis and assessment.
The Gatwick proposal, put forward by the airport’s operator, is for a new second runway over 3,000 metres in length to the south of the existing runway.
There are two proposals shortlisted for further consideration at Heathrow, the first a new 3,500 metre runway to the northwest of the airport put forward by its owner Heathrow Airport Ltd. The second, proposed by the Heathrow Hub group, is an extension of the existing northern runway to the west, lengthening it to at least 6,000 metres and enabling it to be used as two runways for departing and arriving aircraft. Heathrow Hub’s proposal also allows for a similar extension and operation to the existing southern runway but this has not been taken up by the Commission.
Both Heathrow proposals come with claims by their backers that they address noise concerns, one of the main objections to expansion of the airport.
Heathrow Hub, which believes its proposed concept could be up and running within five years, says by extending the runway to the west there would be more opportunities for noise mitigation by allowing some slots to be used to facilitate runway alternation and would be compatible with noise reduction techniques such as quieter approaches and steeper climb-outs.
“We would like to emphasise that our proposal is not only the cheapest on offer, it also has the most comprehensive noise reduction strategy,” said former Concorde pilot Jock Lowe, a Heathrow Hub director.
Heathrow Airport’s northwest runway option would increase capacity from a current limit of 480,000 flights a year to 740,000 and raise passenger numbers from 70 million to 130 million. However, the airport operator similarly argues that under its proposal there would be fewer households within the airport’s noise footprint than there are today, due to quieter aircraft and take-off and landing techniques.
This option replaces a proposal for a shorter third runway made some years ago. “We have thought afresh about how a third runway can be delivered,” said Heathrow’s Chief Executive, Colin Matthews, responding to the Commission’s interim report. “Our new option is different from the previous proposal and will deliver the flights Britain needs while continuing to reduce the total number of people affected by aircraft noise.”
The airport says it will now work with local authorities, local communities and other stakeholders to develop its new runway option further, and plans to consult in 2014 with more details of the proposal.
The go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow was provisionally passed by the previous UK government before being dropped by all main political parties after the last national election in the face of fierce opposition from local politicians and communities. Although the two new proposals are still under consideration by the independent Airports Commission, which is not due to issue its final report until the summer of 2015 and after the next election, there has been a strong reaction to the shortlist from opponents of Heathrow expansion.
John Stewart, chair of HACAN, which represents residents under the Heathrow flight paths, said, “Although Davies’s proposals focus less on Heathrow than had been rumoured, there is little doubt they will act as the trigger to 18 months of intense campaigning against Heathrow expansion.”
Stewart, who fought a high-profile battle against the previous runway plan, threatened more of the same. “The scale of the opposition will be so great that we believe that they are politically undeliverable and should have been dropped at this stage.”
The Mayor of London, who is championing a new Thames Estuary airport, said building a new runway at Heathrow would be “completely crackers” and would lead to “insatiable” demands for a fourth runway. “It would be catastrophic for London’s quality of life and consign millions of people to extra noise pollution,” he told the BBC.
Opposition to a new runway at Gatwick, meanwhile, is focused not so much on noise nuisance but mainly the impact on a local rural population.
Reacting to the Commission’s preliminary findings, Brendon Sewill, Chairman of the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC), said: “A new runway used to full capacity would cause substantial environmental damage to all the towns and villages for many miles around Gatwick. In addition to the usual issues of noise, pollution and climate change, one of the emerging concerns is that making Gatwick larger than Heathrow would lead to the urbanisation of much of Surrey and Sussex.”
A doubling of the number of required airport jobs would place a worrying pressure on housing, schools, hospitals and transport, he said. “Once people recognise that the threat is real, and that a new runway is not just a strip of concrete, there will be tidal wave of opposition.”
However, Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate claims there is growing local support for expanding the airport. “We do not take any of it for granted and we will do everything we can to engage with local people in the months ahead – including formal consultation on our proposals in the spring,” he said. “The real debate starts now, not least on the environmental impacts and business case of each option.”
The Commission has not shortlisted options for a Thames Estuary airport. “While the potential they offered to reduce aviation noise impacts in the South East of England and to support economic development on the eastern side of London was attractive, they presented many challenges and uncertainties,” it reported.
It estimates the most viable of the options, on the Isle of Grain, could cost up to £112 billion ($182bn), around five times that of the three shortlisted options, as it would require a very substantial new surface access infrastructure. A new airport would also cause an economic impact elsewhere as it would require the closure of Heathrow for commercial reasons and London City for airspace reasons. In addition, it would present major environmental issues, especially around impacts on protected sites.
The Commission will though carry out additional analysis in the first half of 2014 and reach a view later in the year on the credibility of the proposal and whether it should be added to the shortlist.
Heathrow Airport says that if the government of the day supports a third runway at the airport then it would commit to keeping CO2 emissions within UK climate change targets by incentivising cleaner aircraft, supporting global carbon trading and increasing public transport use.
Environmental NGOs, on the other hand, do not believe this can be achieved. “Building a new runway will not be possible within our national climate targets unless the government is willing to limit growth at all other airports in the UK – something the government will not be willing to do,” said Tim Johnson, Director of the Aviation Environment Federation. “In his report, Sir Howard estimates the costs to the UK economy of not building a new runway. The costs of blowing our enshrined climate targets will be much higher.”
Johnson added previous airport expansion proposals had been shelved because of insurmountable local constraints related to noise and air quality but the interim report had not explained how these could be overcome.
“Sir Howard has spoken of decisions on airport capacity needing to balance the national interest with local considerations,” he said. “Yet the Commission’s report reaches a conclusion on the need for a new runway before it has undertaken a comprehensive environmental and social analysis that could still rule out the options on the table.”
WWF also maintains that a new runway would be incompatible with UK climate targets and was not needed as there was already sufficient available capacity for aviation to grow within recommended limits. It said the business case for airport expansion in the UK had not been made and its own analysis of publicly available data showed that business flying has been in decline for over a decade, both at Heathrow and across the UK.
“It’s a shame that the Airports Commission thinks we need more runways, and probably at Heathrow, to provide more routes to emerging markets,” commented Jean Leston, Transport Policy Manager of WWF-UK. “We think you can do this without pouring more concrete and wrecking our climate targets. The fact is, business is flying less and expansion at Heathrow will be used mostly for leisure travel. Expanding Heathrow for more leisure flying is an environmental travesty.”
The UK aviation industry has though supported the report. Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Airport Operators Association, the trade body for UK airports, said: “We encourage the Commission to push ahead with the next stages of its work, keep to its timetable and make its Final Report no later than summer 2015, as the Commission itself set out.
“We also continue to encourage all political parties to commit to acting on the recommendations in the Final Report in 2015, to ensure the UK has the network of vibrant point-to-point airports and sufficient world class hub capacity it needs to link to existing and emerging markets in the future.”
Simon Buck, Chief Executive of the British Air Transport Association (BATA), said the Commission had clearly recognised a need for net additional runway capacity in the southeast of England in the coming decades.
“We do not currently have a preference for the best options or sites, but along with our member airlines, we will be considering the shortlist in more detail over the coming months,” he said. “Politicians of all stripes must commit to supporting and implementing the Commission’s final recommendations when they are published in summer 2015. The Commission’s findings have to be the final word on the crucial question of airport capacity for a considerable length of time. The UK cannot afford further procrastination and delay in dealing with this issue.”
In the second phase of its work, the Commission will subject the shortlisted proposals to a more detailed assessment. A consultation on the options and associated appraisal results will be undertaken in the autumn of 2014 following publication in early 2014 of a draft ‘Appraisal Framework’.
Airports Commission Interim Report
Heathrow Airport proposal
Heathrow Hub proposal
Gatwick Airport proposal
Thames Estuary – Isle of Grain proposal
AirportWatch (on behalf of HACAN and GACC)
Aviation Environment Federation – Three Tests for Interim Report
WWF-UK – Flight of Fancy
Airport Operators Association
British Air Transport Association
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