Delaying a decision on a new London runway carries a high risk, Airports Commission chief warns politicians
Mon 17 Nov 2014 – Environmental factors will be a major part of the decision on if and where a new London runway is to be built, Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate told the annual gathering of the UK Airport Operators Association last week. A recent YouGov poll, sponsored by Gatwick, shows Londoners themselves consider environmental impacts as important as the economic benefits in the decision. Unsurprisingly, the respondents came down in favour of Gatwick as the choice for a new runway, whereas a geographically wider YouGov poll sponsored by Heathrow showed a preference for expansion at its airport. At the AOA conference, the UK’s aviation minister and his opposition party shadow both praised the work of the Airports Commission tasked with making a recommendation and promised a swift decision but fell short of saying whether that would lead to runway expansion. British Airways boss Willie Walsh reiterated his view that a new runway at Heathrow was politically undeliverable because of the noise issue.
With the added implications for the regions, a potential new London runway and the sustainable development of airports across the UK were the focus of this year’s meeting of airport managers. An appearance by the Commission’s Chairman, Sir Howard Davies, coincided with the start of a 12-week consultation on the details of the three proposals currently under review – two different plans for a third runway at Heathrow and the other for a second runway at Gatwick. The consultation comes with the publication of major reports analysing the business and environmental cases for each proposal. The Commission is due to present its findings to the new incoming government after the general election next May.
Noting the reluctance of political leaders of the main parties to commit to fulfilling his recommendations, despite his signalling already in favour of runway expansion to deal with capacity constraints, Davies told the conference: “I hope to provide whichever government comes to power with evidence that makes it very difficult to duck this issue. If they do, they will pay. This is a decision for which the time has come. Delaying it further carries a high risk.”
Robert Goodwill, the minister responsible for aviation, said there was little space between the two main political parties over the issue but neither would “hand out a blank cheque” and the decision would be based on the evidence. He said he was confident the aviation industry could grow sustainably in environmental terms given present advances in aircraft and engine technology and alternative fuels, together with the future likelihood of an international market-based mechanism.
In a keynote speech, he said a fair balance needed to be struck “between the positive contributions of flights and the negative impacts of noise. Wherever possible, we want to limit and reduce the number of people significantly affected by aircraft.
“Aircraft today are 75% quieter than they were in the 1960s but we expect the industry to continue reducing and mitigating noise as airport capacity grows.”
During a Q&A session, he appeared to indicate where his own preference lay. “This is not a decision that needs to be made on the basis of politician’s post bags, opinion polls or focus groups,” he told delegates. “It needs to be made on what is best for the UK economy and ensuring we continue to be a leading aviation nation and create jobs in this sector.”
Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, cautioned the historical political deadlock would not be broken by merely “talking up” achievements in reducing aircraft noise, as there was considerable public mistrust over the issue. “This has to be dealt with if you are going to get anywhere with the politicians,” he said.
Although noise impact on local populations is the key environmental concern, and to a lesser extent air quality issues – particularly at Heathrow, the future growth in UK aviation carbon emissions from airport capacity expansion was highlighted by Cait Hewitt, Deputy Director of the green group Aviation Environment Federation. She said adding a new runway to the London network would require constraints elsewhere in the UK aviation system to stay within national carbon targets.
The government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has previously stated UK passenger numbers could be increased by up to 60% by 2050 to keep within those targets but Hewitt argued this was likely to be exceeded with the added capacity from just one new runway.
Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the AOA, responded the CCC figures were based on an annual average fuel efficiency improvement of 0.8% whereas the industry was achieving around 1.5% and so there would be room for future capacity increases at UK regional airports.
Shadow aviation minister Gordon Marsden said it was important the industry came together to make a united case that boosting aviation capacity was not just in its own interests but in the wider public interest. “Any new capacity must go hand in hand with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation and tackle climate change,” he said. “We have to make sure the targets for noise and emissions reductions are fair and achievable.”
However, Willie Walsh, Chief Executive of British Airways and Iberia parent IAG, told the conference he had not seen any evidence that politicians were now more likely to reach a consensus on runway expansion around London as a result of the work of the Airports Commission, which he described as “world class”.
“I fully accept politicians are going to struggle with this because it’s not going to be popular with everyone and there are real concerns that need to be addressed,” he said. “You could also say the industry has not had a good track record in allaying fears. We are asking people to trust us on our past environmental performance, which there is strong evidence to support, but people really struggle to see where this leads to.”
He said the industry had been guilty of making false promises in the past, for example over a pledge there would be no need for a third runway at Heathrow. “We are now more honest and our commitments on environmental performance for the future are based on hard facts and the technology that is being developed today.”
Reaching a decision to build a new London runway would be tough, he added, “and I don’t think we have the politicians in place who will be prepared to take it.”
He was also critical of the Gatwick and Heathrow runway proposals, accusing them of “glossing over” the increase in costs from airport charges that airlines would have to pay as a result of building a new runway at either.
The documents released by the Airports Commission to coincide with the start of the consultation process to assess the three proposals, which runs until February 3, suggest each have underestimated the costs of building their runways.
The Commission has run its own forecasts of UK capacity up until 2050 based on five scenarios considering potential growth in the global air transport sector. Against a recommendation from the Committee on Climate Change that UK aviation carbon emissions should remain below 37.5 million tonnes in 2050, the Commission estimates emissions as a result of an added new runway at Gatwick would range between 38.7 and 50.6 million tonnes. This is based on a future in which carbon emissions from flights departing UK airports are traded at the European level until 2030 and then as part of a liberal global carbon market.
In comparison, the total UK aviation emissions as a result of a new north-west runway at Heathrow proposed by the airport operator range between 40.8 and 51.2 million tonnes and the so-called Heathrow Hub extended northern runway proposal between 40.2 and 50.2 million tonnes.
The Commission says it intends to carry out further work to complete a fuller economic assessment of the case where UK aviation emissions are constrained to the CCC’s planning assumption of 37.5 million tonnes.
The reports also forecast the impacts of noise and on local air quality caused by expansion at the two airports through until 2050. The Commission finds that even after expansion and a new runway at Gatwick, there would be at least six other UK airports with substantial noise impacts on more people than Gatwick.