UK parliament transport committee rejects new airport hub proposals and calls for expansion of Heathrow
(photo: Heathrow Airport Ltd)
Mon 20 May 2013 – The expansion of Heathrow, with the addition of at least a third runway, is the best way of meeting the demand for increased airport capacity in the UK, according to the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee. In its Aviation Strategy report, the Committee rejects the idea of constructing a new hub airport, partly on environmental grounds but largely because of commercial considerations. However, it sees the presence of a strong hub airport as vital for the UK’s economic growth and believes the development of Heathrow is long overdue. On the other side of the debate, the environmental group WWF and the London Assembly have cast doubt on the need for airport expansion. The operator of Heathrow, meanwhile, has put forward its own proposals for short and medium term measures to improve reliability and reduce noise.
The all-party Transport Committee highlights figures published by the Department for Transport (DfT) that predict a rising capacity gap between the number of passengers per year that UK airports are able to handle and the total, unconstrained demand resulting from air travel’s continued growth in the UK. The forecast figures show the gap could rise from 5 million passengers per year in the 2015-30 period to 35 million by 2050. This evidence, says the Transport Committee, shows that capacity expansion at UK airports is needed now.
“Aviation is vital to our economy and it is essential for the UK to maintain its status with an international aviation hub offering connectivity to a wide range of destinations across the globe,” said Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the Committee. “We recognise that demand for air travel across the UK is forecast to grow, believe that aviation should be permitted to expand and accept that more capacity is necessary to accommodate sustainable aviation growth.”
Despite urging the government to meet this predicted rise in demand for air travel, the report is clear in ruling out the construction of a new London hub airport as a viable option. Environmental factors – such as the impact on biodiversity, the number of people affected by noise and the increased transport emissions resulting from many passengers travelling further to an airport to the east of London – do feature in the Committee’s case. However, it cites commercial and economic considerations as the most important reasons against any new airport development.
Instead, the Committee strongly favours the expansion of Heathrow, an infrastructure project it says is long overdue. It concludes a third runway may well be enough to meet the long-term increase in demand, but that it is not possible to say this for certain now without knowing what effect other infrastructure projects – specifically the development a high-speed rail network in the UK and expansion at other London airports – will have on the growth of Heathrow.
“We conclude that a third runway at Heathrow is necessary, but also suggest that a four-runway proposal may have merit, especially if expanding to locate two new runways westward from the current site could curb the noise experienced by people affected under the flight path,” said Ellman.
The environmental group WWF has voiced its opposition to the Committee’s position on expansion at Heathrow. “This report from the Transport Select Committee is about as predictable and welcome as rain in a British summer,” said Jean Leston, transport policy lead at WWF-UK. “It speaks volumes that climate change hardly gets a mention yet this is the biggest environmental threat we face. It is no good thinking that we can simply pass on the responsibility for our global emissions for someone else to deal with; we have to take action at home.”
WWF highlighted a report it jointly commissioned with other NGO organisations that found there was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the UK would lose out economically to competitors without the increased global connections offered by airport expansion. The report, conducted by CE Delft, concluded the cost-benefit analysis methodologies employed to assess the need for increased airport capacity often overestimate the economic benefits and that no solid evidence exists to positively link the number of global connections an airport has to economic growth.
“The methods for assessing the benefits and costs of new runways and airports are hopelessly inadequate and open to gross manipulation. CE Delft has instilled a dose of reality into the airports debate,” said Leston.
The London Assembly, the elected body able to make recommendations on issues such as transport and the environment to the city’s mayor, similarly rejects the idea that airport capacity expansion is needed. Its own Transport Committee recommends greater utilisation of the free runway slots at the city’s other airports, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted, rather than expanding Heathrow, a project that it says would have unacceptable noise and air pollution impacts on the city’s residents.
The UK Airports Commission, set up by the British government and headed by the economist Sir Howard Davies, is due to deliver its final recommendations on how best to meet UK airport capacity needs in the summer of 2015. At the end of this year, the Commission is expected to produce an interim report recommending short term (to be delivered within five years) or medium term (longer than five years) options that do not require extra runways or terminals.
In a submission to the Commission last week of a package of short and medium term options, Heathrow Airport proposes redesigning local airspace to improve efficiency and routing aircraft over less populated areas. The policy of concentrating aircraft on only a few flight paths should be changed to one of using a greater number of routes in a pattern that provides predictable periods of respite from aircraft flying overhead, it says.
The airport’s operating company also proposes opening slots earlier in the morning – between 0500 and 0600 – using one runway while ending routine arrivals on both of Heathrow’s two runways between 0600 and 0700. This, it believes, would deliver new periods of respite from early morning noise for local communities while improving hub competitiveness by making more passenger connections viable.
Heathrow also suggests reassessing the policy of ‘first come, first served’ by which the first aircraft arriving in its airspace are permitted to land first. A better approach, it argues, would be to serve aircraft by schedule, so that the airport is working to a plan, and to prioritise aircraft with the latest performance-based navigation systems.
None of the proposals would result in an increase in flights above the current 480,000 annual cap, maintains the airport, but it says they should not be seen as a substitute for the requirement for an additional runway. Heathrow has decided against supporting ‘mixed-mode’ operations in which both runways would be used for both arriving and departing aircraft on noise respite grounds.
“We are listening to local residents’ concerns and we are working hard to develop new long-term solutions that can deliver additional flights whilst also reducing noise,” said Heathrow’s Chief Executive, Colin Matthews.