From my desk in southeast London, the drone of an Airbus or Boeing as it joins Heathrow’s holding pattern is so frequent it is barely perceptible.
From a back yard in west London, however, the noise of that same aircraft as it screams onto the tarmac is a little harder to ignore.
When Heathrow’s third runway comes to fruition – and that could be as soon as 2015 – my office should get a little quieter. But for west London residents, the message is clear: either get used to it, or get earplugs.
The plan, which could cost as much as £40 billion, includes a sixth terminal and high-speed rail link, and will see the world’s busiest international airport expand from 480,000 flights a year to 700,000 and potentially push an extra 20 million cars onto the capital’s already busy roads.
In giving the project the green light, transport secretary Geoff Hoon cited its environmental benefits, but the financial argument is that Heathrow is full and London will lose out to Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam as the hub for Europe if it fails to expand.
ABTA’s approval for the plan was confirmed last week with a statement from chief executive Mark Tanzer. Consumer criticism directed at Heathrow, he said, was most often down to poor service, stemming from operating at near capacity.
“The skies above Heathrow are often full of aircraft circling in ‘stacks’ waiting for a landing slot. This polluting and fuel-inefficient practice will be largely eradicated by the provision of a new runway,” he said.
But not everyone agrees. Aside from the residents of Sipson, the Middlesex village that will be wiped off the map if the runway goes ahead – school, cemetery and 700 houses included – several people in the travel industry have voiced their concerns.
Sunvil managing director and ABTA board member Noel Josephides disputed the argument that Britain will lose out if Heathrow does not expand.
“It is a hub and a lot of passengers don’t even get out of the airport. I don’t see how it will suffer if it remains the size it is.”
The addition of another runway will also not cut the time spent waiting for a landing slot – it will simply create another stack.
For years, added Josephides, the travel industry has been training consumers to fly from regional airports, thereby avoiding the high fees charged for landing slots in the capital. And it has worked, benefiting both the travel industry and the consumer. Going back on that is counter-intuitive.
The Aviation Environment Federation – a pressure group formed 24 years ago with a remit to cut noise levels around airports – claims Heathrow is far from its capacity.
Spokesman Jeff Gazzard said: “Heathrow has its limits, but even at the current 480,000 flights a year, BAA’s own figures show it can increase from 68 million passengers to 95 million by 2030.”
Achieving this theoretical limit takes into account the increased loads of long-haul aircraft such as the Airbus A380. It would also mean shifting smaller point-to-point traffic such as London-Paris, to other airports in the southeast.
It’s this network of airports: Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and City, added Gazzard, that means London cannot be challenged by rivals Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.
“Paris has three airports: Beauvais – little more than a Ryanair stop – Orly, and Charles de Gaulle, which, even with four runways is way behind Heathrow on passenger numbers – 57 million on 533,000 flights per year. Heathrow receives 68 million passengers on about 480,000 flights.”
Gazzard said similar patterns at Schiphol and Frankfurt – which received approval this week for its fourth runway – were down to the fact that none of the rival hubs can use all of their runways simultaneously.
“None of these cities can match Heathrow for numbers, and none has the network of five airports London has – the idea of Britain losing out to a foreign airport is a red herring,” he said.
Nevertheless, the economic possibilities of a revamped Heathrow are compelling. Airlines are, not surprisingly, strongly in favour of the new runway and terminal, but as Virgin Atlantic spokesman Paul Charles pointed out, the building project alone will help create jobs that stem the effects of recession and leave Britain with a more effective transport network. The high-speed rail link will be crucial to the success of the plan, tying in Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland.
Ultimately, it is the lack of any realistic alternatives that will see the third runway through to fruition. Aviation expert David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Travel Weekly sister publication Flight International, noted Heathrow is possibly the worst sited airport in the world – its wind patterns dictating a flight path directly over the city – but it’s what we’re left with.
The solution, he said, should have been a fourrunway airport at Stansted, but successive governments have thrown out that plan since it was first suggested nearly 50 years ago.
“Environmentally, a third runway is the worst possible option Britain could have gone for, but it’s too late to do anything else and Heathrow needs the space.”
Adopting a mixed mode system – whereby aircraft take off and land on the same runway as opposed to the current system of switching strips each afternoon – would bring a significant capacity increase. But the government has blocked that plan to help cut noise pollution.
That might offer a crumb of comfort to those in the local area. But while it is tempting to write off the runway pro-testors as a bunch of self-interested NIMBYs, you can’t dismiss someone’s pleas about their back yard when it’s going to be swallowed up by an airport.
Bearing that in mind, perhaps it is more accurate to consider the expansion as the least worst option.
Heathrow expansion timeline
June 2006: First official plans unveiled for third runway at Heathrow and sixth terminal.
November 2007: Government launches consultation on runway plan; response invited from public.
February 2008: Greenpeace makes its feelings known: activists breach security and attach protest banner to a British Airways aircraft.
March 2008: London Assembly calls for extension into enquiry on the third runway.
September 2008: Plan receives overt backing from private sector – 100 companies, including Hilton – take a page advert in the Financial Times to show their support. In same month, London mayor Boris Johnson proposes new airport in Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow.
November 2008: Government due to approve third runway plan.
January 2009: Runway plan receives approval with high-speed rail link as part of the project.
Image: INS News Agency / Rex Features
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