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Engineers reject hard to reach Thames Estuary airport plan

Leading aviation engineers gave the thumbs down to London mayor Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary at the annual NCE “Airport Design & Engineering Conference” last week.

The proposed hub is intended to replace Heathrow as it runs out of expansion options.

Aecomaviation director, Alex Lake, said the airport’s location severely limited its accessibility to motorists.

“If anyone says that the Thames estuary idea is much more environmentally friendly than Heathrow, challenge them about surface access.”

Alex Lake, Aecomaviation

He said that Heathrow can be accessed in under two hours from anywhere in the South East, but that it would only be possible for people in Essex, Sussex, Kent and London to reach the new airport in two hours or less.

“The catchment area is vastly smaller than Heathrow,” said Lake. “If anyone says that the Thames estuary idea is much more environmentally friendly [than Heathrow], challenge them about surface access. You can clearly see that Heathrow has the advantage.”

The problem would not just be for the people travelling through the airport but also the people that work there. Heathrow employs around 70000 people.

“One of the issues is how north Kent can cope with 1M people turning up on its doorstep and the impact of the job losses around Heathrow,” said Mott MacDonald head of aviation services Chris Chalk.

Readers' comments (3)

  • Michael Paul

    We've heard all these arguments before - which doesn't make them any more valid. Such concerns certainly don't seem to have deterred the developers of other offshore airports. I'm not sure whether Mr. Lake has recently tried getting to Heathrow, as I find his view that anyone in the South East can reach Heathrow in under 2 hours unrealistic - and there's nothing environmentally friendly about being stuck in a traffic jam on the M25. We, as engineers have the chance to address all the issues involved with developing a new airport - and the future options for Heathrow are strictly limited.
    Mike Paul, Stuttgart, Germany

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  • Apart from the aircraft themselves, passengers traveling to and from the airport are the largest source of emissions related to air travel. Mike Paul is correct that sitting in traffic anywhere is hardly environmentally friendly and that is why Airport Surface Access Strategies are so fundamental.

    However, whilst local congestion can be fixed, where people live in relation to a nation's primary hub airport cannot so easily be fixed. What we can do at any airport (regional or hub) is to encourage passengers to change their travel behaviour and choose the most sustainable option available to them through providing quicker, cheaper and easier choices, and we are successfully doing this at many of the UK's airports. But the longer we make passengers travel by any mode is clearly wrong, unless certain modes are only available to certain airports when comparing options.

    The time/population characteristics of any airport catchment can be accurately determined using GIS technology (including modelling of congestion, such as on the M25) and that is how we can very accurately demonstrate that approximately 10 million more people live within a 2 hour catchment (by road) of Heathrow, as an example, when compared to the equivalent isochrones for the typical Thames Estuary sites (with modelled access).

    Of course, there are very serious challenges for all of the transport industry when it comes to local noise and social welfare, but these aspects are not resulting in climate change, and whilst the management of these issues is imperative for the well being of those living and working close to airports, we must not take our eye off the ball and take decisions based on less damaging environmental metrics, only to inadvertently increase emissions.

    At AECOM we are no strangers ourselves to island airports, having designed the island for what is now Hong Kong International Airport. But at that time climate change, and specifically emissions, was not even on the agenda. Building an airport in the Thames Estuary also brings with it some serious ecological implications; the estuary contains one of Europe’s biggest arrays of internationally protected wildlife habitat in Europe and is used by 300,000 migratory birds. The RSPB themselves state that “to build an airport here would potentially be the single biggest piece of environmental vandalism ever perpetrated in the UK”

    As Boris Johnson himself has stated “If there is an overriding economic, environmental, political or practical reason why this airport cannot be built it will not be built” . Yes, the Thames Estuary airport is quite feasible from an engineering perspective, but given the price tag, the increased emissions, the loss in wildlife and the significant local political opposition it may be more fruitful to direct all of our energies elsewhere.

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  • Friends of the North Kent Marshes

    We are wholly opposed to the construction of an airport anywhere in the Thames Estuary because of the immense damage it would cause to the area’s internationally important wildlife and the wider environment.

    The issue was exhaustively investigated between 2002 and 2005 in the Government’s Aviation White Paper. All the key players, including the aviation industry, contributed. An airport in the Thames Estuary was conclusively ruled out and this decision upheld by the High Court. In addition to the unprecedented environmental damage and the resulting massive legal implications, the investigation found that an estuary airport did not make sense economically, would not meet the requirements of the aviation industry and presented a significantly higher risk of ‘birdstrike’ than at any other major airport in the UK.

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