ECONOMIC growth in the UK is being held back by the shortage of airport capacity in the South East. And barely a day goes by when the newspapers are not filled with reports and opinions about the latest schemes and proposals to resolve this – build a new airport here, expand a new airport there, or expand several airports at once.
The government’s airports commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, is not due to issue its final report until 2015. But why, in a time of intolerable pressure on our public finances, are we thinking about building new airports in the South when we have the right airport in the right location: Heathrow.
Heathrow is responsible for 1 per cent of UK GDP and drives the economic competitiveness of London and the South East. Its uniquely attractive catchment area, in turn a result of Heathrow’s connectivity, results in Heathrow’s airlines flying more premium seats per aircraft than any other major hub. The Thames Valley is home to the European headquarters of ten of the top 30 global brands: an economic powerhouse dependent on access to global markets. In fact, Heathrow has shaped the whole economy of the capital and the M4 corridor.
But the continued uncertainty over Heathrow’s future is already damaging the UK. The Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce has reported that international companies considering investment into the UK have expressed grave concerns about future policy around Heathrow. These concerns are particularly apparent when dealing with emerging markets – if London’s mayor is effectively calling for the closure of Heathrow how can we convince major foreign companies to invest in our economy?
Moving the UK’s main airport would cause huge disruption. And Heathrow would have to close to make any replacement viable. The airport directly supports around 100,000 jobs, including hotels and caterers on the periphery, and a huge number of businesses in West London and up the Thames Valley have established themselves there to be close to Heathrow.
One suggested option is to allow Gatwick, and perhaps Stansted, to build extra runways. This is not the solution: London would risk losing its direct connections to lots of emerging market cities if flights were increasingly split between airports. The high price of landing slots at Heathrow shows how badly airlines want to be there. And convincing the airlines to move would be a herculean task, as Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways-owner International Airlines Group, indicated last year: “Why would we move? Look at how much has been invested in Heathrow, look at the location.”
The option of doing nothing is equally unsustainable. Heathrow is already operating at full capacity. So today, the Centre for Policy Studies has issued a report which details a simple, privately funded, affordable and achievable solution to this ongoing conundrum: Heathrow Hub.
Heathrow Hub is an integrated air and rail facility which would double the number of Heathrow’s available aircraft slots, allowing more flights while also reducing delays and improving the airport’s resilience and efficiency. The scheme involves extending both of Heathrow’s existing runways up to a total length of about 7,000 metres and dividing them so that they each provide two, full-length runways, allowing simultaneous take-offs and landings. It also includes a new passenger interchange immediately north of Terminal 5, directly connecting the airport with the M25 motorway, Crossrail, the Great Western Main Line and – as an option – an alternative HS2 route via the airport (if HS2 proceeds).
Crucially, the extra capacity could reduce the impact of noise by cutting the airport’s opening hours and by allowing early morning arrivals to land two miles further west (reducing noise over much of London). A significant increase in available runway capacity could also allow for runway alternation at different times of the day to provide noise relief, and would be compatible with innovative noise reduction techniques like quieter approaches and steeper climb-outs. And few (if any) new areas will be brought into the airport’s noise footprint. The scheme would also be cost effective: the cost and airport charges would be much lower than that of any other new airport. It would also be entirely privately-funded.
Our proposals could give London the airport capacity it needs at a reasonable cost. Heathrow is arguably as important to UK economic competitiveness as the English language, our timezone and our legal system – why would we even consider dispensing with such an asset?
Mark Bostock is a director of Runway Innovations and Heathrow Hub. www.heathrowhub.com. His report Double up on Heathrow is available at www.cps.org.uk