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Sat 21 Dec 2013 01:07 PM

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Haggling over Heathrow will cost the UK

Britain’s independent airports commission suggests that the answer to the UK’s air capacity crunch is extra runways at both Heathrow and Gatwick

Haggling over Heathrow will cost the UK

At some point in 2015, if the projections are to be believed, Heathrow will lose its crown as the world’s largest airport for international passengers. Anyone who has visited the airport in recent years will probably understand why. The infrastructure is dilapidated, the taxiways are crammed with aircraft waiting to take off and at peak hours it is a pretty unpleasant place to be. Perhaps the only bright spot is Terminal 5, the recently built home for British Airways. But even that seems to somehow accentuate the grimness of the rest of the sprawling facility.

Heathrow was in the news again last week, due to the release of a report from Britain’s independent airports commission that suggested that the answer to the UK’s air capacity crunch is extra runways at both Heathrow and Gatwick, the world’s largest single-runway airport.

The declaration comes three years after expansion was ruled out, and was immediately set upon by politicians, campaigners and residents of West London who oppose the move. Their argument is simple; if capacity needs to be expanded, why not build a completely new airport — such as London mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal for the Isle of Grain — with no planning restrictions and no-one to complain about noisy aircraft?

The reality, however, is not that simple. A new hub would cost well over $100bn, while another runway at Heathrow could cost as little as $23bn — and be ready much earlier. Manufacturers are competing hard to build quieter engines that produce less harmful emissions. Airlines like Emirates are experimenting with steeper approaches that create less noise and could potentially allow hubs like Heathrow to operate later into the night.

Not that the facts are likely to get in the middle of what is really a political muddle. Given that this is a long-term project, all three big British political parties will need to agree on a way to move forward, which won’t be before the next election in May 2015. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s doubtful that any consensus will ever be reached on this issue at all. The Heathrow expansion has been bandied about for decades, and the commission’s move to delay its final recommendation for another two years is not so much kicking the can down the road as drop kicking it into the ether.

It also doesn’t seem to matter that the haggling over Heathrow will cost the UK as much as $74bn over the next 60 years.

When I spoke to Willie Walsh, the CEO of International Airlines Group — the firm that owns British Airways, earlier this year, his answer was unequivocal.

“Fifty years from now, I believe British Airways will still be flying from a two-runway hub at Heathrow,” he says. “The world will move on, and the UK will get left behind. Politically, I don’t think there’s a solution and therefore I’m not wasting any time trying to beat my head against the wall when I don’t think I’m going to achieve anything.”

So who benefits from all this? Well, I suspect that most people reading this will be aware that Dubai International Airport will be taking over the top spot from Heathrow in two years time. Comparing the British and Emirati approach to airport infrastructure isn’t entirely helpful; Dubai’s airport has benefitted from a lack of legacy infrastructure and full support from one key stakeholder (the government), while decisions over Heathrow need to be negotiated with shareholders, politicians, focus groups, local councils, residents associations, environmental lobbyists and so on.

But if you asked Walsh today which approach he would prefer, I don’t think he’d hesitate before giving you an answer.

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Anon 5 years ago

Heathrow makes a lot of money from parking, duty free shops, landing fees. They have done nothing to improve the airport.

But worst of all Heathrow management has done nothing to improve the quality of life of people impacted by aircraft noise. I am 30 miles away from Heathrow, yet I get a constant stream of jets, as I am on the flight path.

Heathrow's had 25 years to deal with obstacles such as noise. They would have gone to Boeing and Airbus and ask them to develop SILENT planes (certainly 30 miles from take-off and 30 miles into approach to land). The airport's management failed. The likes of Willie Walsh who are the airline and who do talk to Boeing did nothing for people.

Heathrow should not be rewarded for its failure to invest in SILENT planes.

Anon 2 5 years ago

London already have plenty of airport: Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, London City Airport, Northolt, Biggin Hall, London Southend.... So a comparison to Dubai airport is pointless

T Atton 5 years ago

Heathrow is being left behind by the shift to Airport City, Manchester, something the Chinese have recognised who are ploughing in billions.

New airlines are flocking to Manchester on a monthly basis
Air Canada, US Air and next year SAUDIA !

It is more Central for the WHOLE Of the UK
It is located at the centre of the UK 5 largest Cities
Has far superior transport links in terms of Car/Rail.
Has twice the connectivity to other UK domestic airports
It can handle another 30m pax a year WITHOUT destroying towns and villages.

Lee 5 years ago

I agree with Nick Clegg when he recently stated that most flights into Heathrow do not have 'hub' passengers but are in fact point to point.
He further suggests that many flights could be transferred to London's other airports that have extra capacity.
Stansted, Luton, London City and Southend could between them take on 30 million extra passengers and thus those hundreds of thousands of slots could be used for the 'emerging' destinations...