Comment: Heathrow – finally on the runway?

Comment: Heathrow – finally on the runway?

Travel Weekly executive editor Ian Taylor asks whether Amsterdam rival can continue to breathe easily

Cabinet backing for a third runway at Heathrow, confirmed by transport secretary Chris Grayling on Tuesday, triggered immense media coverage and sharp reactions from supporters and opponents.

Yet the announcement marked merely a single, predictable step on the ladder of Heathrow expansion when there are plenty of dodgy-looking rungs to come – one or two of which may not take the weight of the decision.

Out at the UK’s Institute of Travel and Tourism conference in Sicily, former transport secretary and ex-chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (he resigned last December over the government’s approach to Brexit) Lord Andrew Adonis noted: “This might be the only piece of infrastructure that goes ahead because of Brexit.”

He also suggested construction might start in 2021 and the runway open in “2025 or 2026”, arguing: “It doesn’t actually take long to build, it’s just a piece of tarmac.”

That appears optimistic. There are a number of potential roadblocks ahead.

The first and most minor is that MPs are required to vote on the proposal before Parliament retires for the summer in early July.

This is seen as a problem for the government given its own MPs in London, some ministers and at least one senior member of the cabinet – foreign secretary Boris Johnson – are strongly opposed.

However, a recent poll of MPs commissioned by Heathrow suggests three-quarters back a third runway despite Labour leaders signalling this week that the party would vote against.

In practice, Labour is split – with an estimated two-thirds of its MPs and the major unions which are its financial backers firmly in favour of Heathrow expansion.

In addition, the 35 MPs of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) are also firmly in favour. So the government will win the vote, though it will depend on SNP and rebel Labour MPs to do it.

The runway plan, touted as a benefit to London, will go through opposed by most of those representing the capital – including the London Assembly which reaffirmed its opposition – but almost wholly supported by MPs outside London.

Legal challenges

The real problems will come later. First, there are the potential legal challenges.

The industry frets at the slow progress made since the Airports Commission recommended construction of a third runway to the northwest of Heathrow in 2015.

The reason for the government’s caution has been its determination to avoid legal challenges. There is no saying it will. Prime minister Theresa May’s own local council has threatened legal action. There will be others.

Second, there is the planning process to negotiate and all the legal pitfalls within it.

The government and Heathrow may fling money at the residents most affected – the London Assembly suggests that could mean up to one million households – and insist on measures to control noise.

What they will struggle to tackle are the emissions, not from aircraft but from road traffic around Heathrow.

This grows heavier by the year, will be exacerbated by the runway construction and associated disruption, and fuelled by the subsequent increase in flights, passengers and cargo.

Hopes of a wholesale switch to electric vehicles by the mid-2020s appear fanciful outside of technology evangelists’ heads.

In the meantime, vehicle emissions – already way over legal limits in west London – are rising not falling.

Third, there is the politics to play out. Labour leader Corbyn may not be ahead in the polls but he demonstrated a capability of winning in 2017 that surprised commentators.

A flare up over Brexit or an unpopular policy – remember the Tories’ election ‘dementia tax’ – could topple May at almost any time given she lacks a majority in Parliament.

The issue of abortion in Northern Ireland threatens to become just such a pitfall, with May dependent on the anti-abortion DUP (Ulster Unionists) to stay in office amid calls from her own party to legalise abortion in the North following the referendum vote in the Republic of Ireland.

Should she fall, another Tory – Boris Johnson perhaps – or Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn would become prime minister. Both would be sure to halt Heathrow expansion.

Even should May make it to 2022, she is unlikely to carry on beyond unless Brexit has gone so well, and the frictions of the past year have been so forgotten, that she appears the best option to her own party and wins the ensuing election.

Third, there is the prospect of substantial protests when construction gets under way. Even Johnson has pledged to lie down in front of the bulldozers. Others more likely to stick to their views will no doubt do so. The protests could be significant.

 

More flights

If one accepts the argument for more flights, the case for Heathrow is compelling. The environmental objections apply equally to any alternative.

Indeed, it’s arguable that expanding Gatwick would be more disruptive since it would require far greater transport infrastructure and terminal development.

However, an argument that Heathrow expansion will benefit consumers is laughable.

At least half of UK adults (‘consumers’) don’t fly at all in any year. A single-digit minority fly multiple times from Heathrow.

I was asked this week “whether Heathrow’s expansion will be good for consumers – will prices be slashed, go up or stay about the same?”

Fares definitely won’t be slashed.

The issue is whether the cost of building the runway – slated to be £14 billion but sure to rise since all major infrastructure projects go way over budget – pushes up fares during and after construction, and by how much?

The government insists the charges for airlines to use Heathrow should not go up. But the Civil Aviation Authority model applied previously has been for airport investment costs to be factored into charges – meaning existing passengers pay for developing infrastructure.

The airlines – led by British Airways-owner IAG – want the costs of the runway slashed and Heathrow’s shareholders to foot the bill by borrowing the money.

They are convinced the charges will be pushed on to them and therefore on to passengers.

Whether expanding Heathrow might eventually – decades in the future – reduce fares a little through lower airport charges is an open question.

The capacity is being added primarily to meet demand from business and airlines to fly from Heathrow. If the demand fills the additional capacity, prices won’t fall – flights would only be cheaper for as long as there is flight overcapacity.

There will also still be limits on flights at the times there is most demand to travel – and the air above Heathrow and the southeast of England won’t expand and is not limitless.

If in doubt, think of the M25 motorway which circles outer London – its extra lanes don’t make it any less congested.

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