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Airports: the case for three Heathrows

James Woudhuysen

Why it makes sense to even out international flights over England’s green and pleasant land

What is a hub airport? The answer is simple: it transfers passengers arriving from spoke airports.

The issue comes to mind because of environmentalist and NIMBYist opposition to expansion at Heathrow. When I last saw Question Time on television, it was broadcast from Leeds; and there the audience was adamant that Heathrow’s third runway should not go ahead… because the North should preside over the growth of UK aviation, not the crowded south-east.

The audience was right, up to a point. My position, however, may annoy Greens still more. I’m 100% in support of flying – and especially in favour of those cheap flights that environmentalists, in their snooty disapproval of the working classes, abhor the most. So what’s wrong with expanding Heathrow, building a new airport, à la Boris Johnson, in the Thames Estuary, and rebalancing the UK economy with a third international hub at Leeds, Manchester or Glasgow?

Don’t give me the usual guff about aviation being responsible for 3% of CO2 emissions, growing fast and all that. Engine efficiencies will improve before the earth boils. Clever air traffic control and clever engine shrouding can beat aircraft noise (I know, I know, I live in Putney). And in the longer term, biofuels will make aviation carbon-neutral: my book Energise! A future for energy innovation shows that there’s land enough in the world for both food and fuel.

Mentioning attempts by Craig Venter to use the laboratory chemicals of conventional biochemistry to create bacteria that might one day help generate energy, the book also suggests that synthetic biofuels could have a great future; and, since it was published, there’s been further confirmation that this idea could have – what’s the phrase? – legs.

At the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Florida, distinguished fellow Steven Benner has used synthetic biology, which he initiated as a field, to make a new, artificial kind of self-replicating DNA, complete with a double-helix structure but a 12-letter code rather than the usual four-letter one.

Of his creation, Dr Benner has said: ‘the next step will be to apply natural selection to it’.

Greens, take fright! For me, however, the use of genetic modification in agriculture, together with the researches of Venter and Benner, suggests that biochemistry will sooner or later solve the problem of airline emissions.

So why not three hub airports for Britain, not just one? There’s no God-given law that says a nation like Britain must only have one main airport serving international flights. Heathrow already boasts the largest number of international passengers on the planet – why overload it still more? And don’t give me that ‘concreting over the countryside’ line, either. Only 10% of the country’s surface area is urbanised.

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh says that opening in the Thames Estuary would cost £40-70bn, requiring both government money and the closure of Heathrow. But given that Sterling is likely to stay low for many years to come, to concentrate all in-bound tourism on the west side of the nation’s capital looks very short-sighted. London isn’t the only place worth visiting in Britain; and to consign east London, the North and Scotland to indefinite spoke status is inequitable.

New, international airports will undoubtedly cost a lot of money – but not as much as the government has laid out to save our banking friends.

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