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Airports decision: Heathrow gets the nod

Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission has recommended that Heathrow airport be allowed to build a third runway.

“We have concluded that the best answer is to expand Heathrow’s runway capacity,” says Davies in his report, adding that there is a clear need for additional runway capacity by 2030 and that a political decision needs to be made “soon”.

“While London remains a well connected city, its airports are showing unambiguous signs of strain,” says Davies. “Heathrow is operating at capacity, and Gatwick is quickly approaching the same point. There is still spare capacity elsewhere in the South East for point-to-point and especially low-cost flights, but with no availability at its main hub airport, London is beginning to find that new routes to important long-haul destinations are set up elsewhere in Europe rather than in the UK.

“Other UK airports are increasingly squeezed out of Heathrow, with passengers from the nations and regions obliged to transfer through other European airports, or Middle Eastern hubs. That costs them time and money, and is off-putting to inward investors. Without action soon, the position will continue to deteriorate, and the entire London system will be full by 2040.

“Good aviation connectivity is vital for the UK economy. It promotes trade and inward investment, and is especially crucial for a global city like London. The service sector, whether the City, the media industry or universities, depends heavily on prompt face-to-face contact. There is strong evidence that good transport links, and especially aviation connectivity, make an important contribution to enhancing productivity, which is an important national challenge,” says Davies.

“So a new runway in the South East is needed by 2030, which means a firm decision is needed soon, as bringing it into operation will take a decade or more. One new runway, even fully utilised, is compatible with continued progress towards reducing carbon emissions, and putting it elsewhere in the country would produce a far less efficient outcome. It will provide the capacity we need until 2040 at least. Beyond that, the position is uncertain, and will be strongly dependent on the international policy approach to climate change.”

Ruling out the others

Davies said a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, “while appealing in theory”, is unfeasibly expensive, highly problematic in environmental terms and would be hugely disruptive for many businesses and communities.

Gatwick, by contrast, has presented a “plausible” case for expansion, he said. It is well placed to cater for growth in intra-European leisure flying, but is unlikely to provide as much of the type of capacity which is most urgently required. This means long-haul destinations in new markets.

Heathrow can provide that capacity most easily and quickly, said Davies. The benefits are significantly greater, for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy. All passengers will benefit from enhanced competition.

Heathrow Hub “imaginative but untested”

Davies opted for the north west runway proposal by Heathrow Airport. He said the Heathrow Hub proposal was an “imaginative idea”, which has “usefully opened up thinking” about the way the airport operates, but was less attractive from a noise perspective. He added that Heathrow’s proposal was technically feasible and does not involve massive, untested infrastructure.

He claimed the costs of Heathrow’s plans are high, but financeable by the private sector.

The Heathrow decision comes with caveats though. To make expansion possible the Commission recommends a comprehensive package of accompanying measures which would make the airport’s expansion more acceptable to its local community, and to Londoners generally.

The package includes a ban on night flights, more reliable respite for overflown communities, a legally-enforced “noise envelope”, a statutory independent aviation noise authority, and a noise levy to fund a far stronger and more generous set of compensation and mitigation schemes. New measures to ensure acceptable air quality around the airport will also be needed. All this would be accompanied by a new community engagement board based on the successful model adopted in Amsterdam.

Furthermore, as there is no environmental or operational case for a fourth runway at Heathrow and that option should be ruled out by the government through legislation, said the Commission.

Government urged to act

The Commission urges the government to make an early decision on its recommendations. “Further delay will be increasingly costly and will be seen, nationally and internationally, as a sign that the UK is unwilling or unable to take the steps needed to maintain its position as a well-connected open trading economy in the twenty first century,” it said.

The government has already said it will not respond to Davies’ recommendation before the end of the year. But chancellor George Osborne has implied that government will endorse the Commission’s recommendation, telling the CBI annual dinner in May that “when we get Howard Davies’ report on a new runway in the South East, we’re going to take the decision and get it built”.

Heathrow Airport said it would work with government to deliver to Davies’ recommendation.

“This debate has never been about a runway, it’s been about the future we want for Britain. Expanding Heathrow will keep Britain as one of the world’s great trading nations, right at the heart of the global economy. 

Our new plans have been designed around the needs of local communities and will meet carbon, air quality and noise targets, and provides the greatest benefit to the UK’s connectivity and its long term economic growth, ” said Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye.

“We will create the world’s best connected, most efficient and most environmentally responsible hub airport at the heart of an integrated transport system.

“The Commission has backed a positive and ambitious vision for Britain.  We will now work with Government to deliver it.”

Readers' comments (2)


    Sooner or later Heathrow will have to be closed and abandoned; it was located in the wrong place to start with. Post war haphazard development of a former RAF base started in 1945 and no one has had the cojones to stop it and say we can and should do better. Before WW2 London's airport was located at Hendon and no airport in the world would be allowed to be built now with the primary landing approach, in to the prevailing winds, flying across the centre of a major city.

    This decision will have to be made sooner or later; either sooner on the day after the first large jet crashes on approach to the airport in Central London (whether from a technical fault, pilot error, weather conditions or a terrorist attack) or later, when the politicians and planners realise that after 2030 even a third runway at Heathrow will not be sufficient.

    Unfortunately once again the political and business elite, who live in North London, never hear aircraft noise and find Heathrow the most convenient airport are behind the drive to expand Heathrow.

    The public in the British regions, having been abandoned by British Airways (it really should be forced to be renamed
    itself under the Trade Descriptions Act to London Airways) have themselves abandoned Heathrow as a hub already.
    They now use Amsterdam or Paris as their hub of choice for connections to long haul flights not directly available
    from their local airports and no matter what improvements are made in the South East, and having suffered the third
    world experience at the London Airports for the past 20 years, are unlikely ever to return.

    Build a new airport in the Thames estuary (as should have been done in the 1970s) and close Heathrow as soon as it is open, tested and working. Ferrovial paid £10 billion for Heathrow; compulsorily purchase it for the market value
    (the real estate must be worth five times that as development land) and do so now. Every new runway or new terminal
    constructed at Heathrow just delays that inevitable decision and makes it harder and more expensive to do the right thing.

    Ambitious? What would the Victorians have done?

    Charles M Roberts (F)

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  • I struggle to see why Gatwick could not offer longer routes that they suggest Heathrow alone could provide. Anyone have an explanation?

    Given the significantly higher social and environmental impact of Heathrow as opposed to Gatwick, I can't see how this could have been chosen with the long term in mind. Davies seems inextricably linked to the economic returns (as is his background),which Heathrow seems to provide more of, although again I am unsure why the economic benefits of Heathrow would be so much larger than a new runway elsewhere?

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