Secretary of state for transport Alastair Darling recently said 'doing nothing is not an option' in regard to runways. Damian Arnold reports on the intense activity before next year's Aviation White Paper takes off.
Tony Blair is so determined that new airport runways should be built in Britain that sources claim his Number 10 Policy Unit intervened to add more runway options to the recent Regional Airport Studies (RAS).
Options released by the Department for Transport on 23 July included a 2km runway at Heathrow, three 3km runways at Stansted and new airports at Cliffe marshes in Kent and between Coventry and Rugby.
By the time the documents, prepared by consultants Halcrow, Scott Wilson and Arup, had filtered through Number 10 and been announced to a baying media pack, the list had grown to 10 major runway construction projects in the South East alone.
Consultation is to last until the end of November.
'The documents civil servants prepared were substantially changed by the Number 10 Policy Unit and made far more gung ho for growth, ' claims Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner Paul De Zylva.
Residents, councils and lobbyists are already framing hostile responses with the help of damning environmental assessments from civil engineering consultants. But cynics suggest that the government has already made up its mind to go for airport growth. They claim that the SPASM software developed by Halcrow and Scott Wilson - whereby potential capacity and other criteria are used to allocate a percentage of projected air traffic growth to each UK airport - has already pointed to where runways must be built.
Meanwhile, respondents to RAS are asked to say whether they strongly support, support, oppose or strongly oppose each runway option. The answers are then collated to reveal the most popular runway sites or, more to the point, the line of least resistance. A 'whittled down' list of runway options will then be included in the Aviation White Paper expected next spring.
Critics claim that, as set out in the RAS, the government's approach to new runways is one of: 'it doesn't matter how big you build because you can always mitigate environmental impact'. It is a view, they say, that has evolved as a result of very effective lobbying from business heavyweights.
People such as Confederation of British Industry director general Digby Jones and British Airways chief Rod Eddington have told the government to build or watch billions of pounds diverted away from the UK economy. They cite research from Oxford Economic Forecasting that predicts aviation could represent 2.1% of UK GDP by 2015 compared to 1.4% today, but only if development is allowed.
The threat to the UK's continued economic growth if runways are not approved is shown by Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG).
Two runways have been built in four years, and it already has 467,000 plane movements a year (pma) to Heathrow's 449,000.
Heathrow's capacity will go up to 480,000pma when Terminal 5 is operational in 2008, but by then capacity at CDG will be over 700,000pma. Frankfurt will be handling 650,000 to 700,000pma and Amsterdam's Schipol airport 600,000. A runway building frenzy has gripped the continent.
The green lobby has countered that predictions of more than double the air passengers by 2030 are grossly exaggerated but it seems they have lost the argument. 'Predictions of passenger growth in the past have always been surpassed, ' says head of transport at business lobbyist London First, Irving Yass.
It is no secret that businesses, operators like BAA, and the big airlines want a new runway at Heathrow most of all. 'It brings the highest cost benefit in the quickest period of time. I would add at least one runway at Stansted to that, ' says Peter Forbes of aviation consultant Alan Stratford & Associates.
He also strongly tips the Midlands, Scotland and Bristol for development. Yass contends that a new 2km runway at Heathrow for short haul traffic will not be big enough in the long term and predicts heavy development at Stansted.
At Halcrow, Mark Brown warns against ruling out Cliffe as an option for a new airport despite outcry over its proximity to a bird sanctuary. The consultant's method of identifying new sites for airports by number crunching data such as people affected by noise, topography and commercial potential identified Cliffe as the prime site for a major new airport in the South East.
The options are controversial but the backlash from environmentalists could be diffused by a policy of divide and rule, says De Zylva. Some Not in my back yarders (Nimbys) at Heathrow will support runways at Stansted, Nimbys in Stansted will develop a liking for a new runway at Cliffe and opposition is in danger of splintering.
The industry gears up
For civil engineering consultants that suffered the lull in work after 11 September, the Regional Airport Studies (RAS) have helped to get them going again.
Consultant Sinclair Knight Mertz, for example, has been negotiating with three bodies to do appraisal work on RAS.
Mott MacDonald has been working for Kent County Council to appraise Cliffe and Atkins is looking at surface access issues for British Airways.
'Local authorities will require long term support. There will be a glut of work on environmental impact assessments, ' says Alan Stratford & Associates' Peter Forbes.
Consultants can expect lucrative surface access studies to come their way.
Absence from the government's long term transport planning framework of projects such as a new rail line from Stansted to London is cause for real concern, says former BAA chief executive Alastair Duff, now a consultant on surface access to airports.
'There is little on surface access in the multi modal studies, the Strategic Rail Authority's plan or the 10 Year Transport Plan, ' he says.
'I wonder how much the government really understands the implications of catering for such excessive growth.'
The government's aviation consultants Halcrow and Scott Wilson say they are continuing to 'clarify points' on runway options identified such as surface access.
After the White Paper comes out a further round of appraisals of the runway options that survive is expected. This could lead to detailed planning and even preparation work for public inquiries, says Halcrow development director Mark Brown.
Speed of development depends on how big a role the government takes in driving forward options. Sources close to government say it will be up to the airports to grapple with planning authorities. The White Paper will not be 'totally prescriptive' but will encourage certain lines of development for airport operators such as BAA at Heathrow and Stansted or an independent developer at Cliffe. Speed of response from BAA and other operators will depend on how upbeat they are after a year of downturn which is scheduled to continue into the first half of 2003 at least. But there is confidence that the City will invest given robust passenger forecasts in the long term.
Prospects for the civil engineering industry hinge on the projects that get chosen.
'A new airport at Cliffe would require massive civil engineering on site and for surface access, ' says Brown.
'For new runways at Heathrow and Stansted there would be more emphasis on environmental assessment with people living nearby.'
The planning plough for runways will be sped on by the government making clearer statements of support for runway projects and pinning its lights to detailed proposals.
The exclusion of many technical details from the remit of public inquiries is also expected to avoid a repeat of the 'nightmare scenario' of a five year public inquiry at Heathrow.
Regional airport study options
Heathrow: one 2km runway.
Stansted: one 3km runway.
Stansted: two 3km runways.
Heathrow and Stansted: one new runway each.
Stansted: three new runways.
Cliffe: new airport with five runways.
Other options include: a new runway at Luton; converting RAF Alconbury near Cambridge into a low cost passenger and freight airport; doubling capacity at Birmingham International Airport; a new three runway airport between Coventry and Rugby, a new airport to the north of Bristol and new runways at either Glasgow or Edinburgh airports.
Capacity at UK airports is tight and set to be squeezed further. A year after the horrifying September 11 hijackings, public confidence in flying has bounced back and passenger numbers are growing apace. At the same time, airlines are demanding more space and better service.
Facing stiff competition from major European airports, the UK airports industry is clamouring for more runway and terminal space. Quickly.