On 25 October, the UK Government announced a tentative approval for an additional runway at London-Heathrow Airport – subject to another public consultation and parliamentary vote, pointing to a timeline for final approval that could extend to the end of 2017. Welcome news at last for UK plc, but time is marching on. Robert O’Meara reports.
The stage was set and the worst kept secret in London was that on 18 October, the UK Government was going to announce its decision on where to allow the construction of the first, new, full length runway in the South East of England since the Second World War. Feature articles in the Economist, the Daily Mail and Financial Times and elsewhere served to hype the event all the more. But on the eve of that date, fresh rumours emerged from Whitehall and elsewhere in the air transport community. The announcement would be postponed by a week.
Initial reaction to this false start was predictably sarcastic – “We’ve been waiting 40 years, another week won’t kill us”, quipped one air transport consultant. Another tweeted: “I’m getting a real sense of déjà vu about this”. Jos Nuihuis, the CEO of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, cheekily sent a cake to Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye, with a message that in the meantime, Heathrow can continue using Schiphol as its third runway.
The Davies Commission on airport capacity had already recommended Heathrow to get a new runway in its decision announced in July 2015, estimating that the additional capacity will bring £211 billion in extra economic growth.
A new runway at Heathrow will cost £17.6 billion and create an additional 180,000 jobs for the wider economy, including £2.6 billion to be spent on compensation packages for local residents. Meanwhile, Gatwick said its new (second) runway could be delivered for £7.4 billion, ultimately creating 120,000 jobs. During the extensive battle between the two airports, Gatwick was quick to point out that although their economic impact figures are lower, their expansion plans would meet with less resistance and, therefore, allow their runway to be built sooner.
Fast forward a week later and on the morning of 25 October the decision was finally announced. In line with the Davies Commission’s recommendation 15 months before, Heathrow received the government’s greenlight for a new runway, pending another public consultation and a parliamentary vote – all of which should be carried out by the end of 2017.
Chris Grayling, the UK’s Transport Secretary said: “The step that government is taking today is truly momentous. I am proud that after years of discussion and delay this government is taking decisive action to secure the UK’s place in the global aviation market – securing jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond.” Later that day, in a BBC interview he commented: “this is a big decision for this country, but it’s also the clearest sign post-the-Referendum that this country is very clearly open for business. We have thought long and hard about this and we believe that a third runway at Heathrow is the best option for our future, the best for the whole country, it will create better connectivity and trade links to the rest of the world.”
Given the uncertainty surrounding the imminent move to Brexit, the business community in the UK issued a myriad of positive statements welcoming the news.
Paul Drechsler, President of the Confederation of British Industry, led business groups in welcoming “an enormous relief to firms in every corner of the country”, adding “It will create the air links that will do so much to drive jobs and unlock growth across the UK, allowing even more of our innovative, ambitious and internationally-focused firms, from Bristol to Belfast, to take off and break into new markets.”
The British Chambers of Commerce issued a statement saying: “Building this runway will not only boost business confidence, it will also help firms access export opportunities, and attract investment from both UK and overseas businesses.”
The decision followed hot on the heels of an announcement, less than 10 days before, of an expanded air traffic rights agreement between the UK and China, which will potentially double the frequency of air services between the two countries – thereby creating immediate demand for more airport capacity in the country.
Media reaction was significant and generally positive, but there was substantial analysis of the hurdles yet to be overcome – in particular the vocal opposition of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, over 60 Conservative backbench members of parliament who will need to be won over, and plenty of other political intrigue to come. After more than four decades of political hand-wringing, coupled with poor land use planning by local councils around Heathrow, airport capacity is a deeply political subject in the UK and there are very few people who do not have an opinion on it.
Indeed, over the past three years, during and after the Davies Commission, magazines, broadsheet newspapers, railway station billboards and, of course, social networks played host to an intense battle between Heathrow and Gatwick, as the airports sought to win people over and influence the government decision on who would gain the permission to build a new runway.
Beyond the UK, ACI EUROPE welcomed the fact that the UK Government has finally clarified its position on expanding airport capacity in the UK, calling for this additional capacity to be delivered swiftly, as well as for further capacity development and legal certainty on the future of the UK-EU aviation relationship.
Olivier Jankovec, Director General, ACI EUROPE commented: “This announcement brings us closer to the end of one of the longest, most publicly-consulted infrastructure planning processes, anywhere in the world. While a positive development in itself, this is just a first step requiring both swift implementation and a plan for further airport capacity development – not least because this new runway at Heathrow will not be enough to meet future demand for air transport. An island economy lives or dies by its air connectivity. If the UK Government is serious about its focus on economic growth and preserving the country’s global positioning, it needs to truly embed air connectivity and sustainable airport development in its economic strategy. This has become a common feature of some of the world’s most dynamic and forward-looking economies.”
As recognised by the EU Aviation Strategy launched last year, the lack of sufficient airport capacity remains one of the main challenges faced by European aviation – with the situation being particularly acute in the UK. EUROCONTROL has forecast that insufficient levels of airports capacity will result in 12% of demand for air transport not being accommodated by 2035 – or 1.9 million flights not taking place. The lack of airport capacity will mainly affect medium-sized and larger airports – reflecting a trend of air traffic concentration as airlines tend to focus on primary markets & higher yields. Along with Turkey, the Netherlands and Belgium, the UK is expected to face a significant shortage of airport capacity.
Jankovec commented: “Europe continues to face an airport capacity crunch over the next 20 years. This will obviously hurt aviation – with delays & flight cancellations expected to reach unprecedented levels throughout the entire network and also generating huge environmental inefficiencies. In addition, this will damage our economies with the resulting weakened air connectivity costing €97 billion in lost GDP annually and nearly two million jobs missed out on by 2035.”
However, it would be a mistake to assume that approval delays for grand projets are unique to air transport in the UK, even if there are moments when it seems that the word “airport” draws more ire than “expansion”. Developments in other fields of transport in the UK are meeting with resistance as well. Consider the growing legal challenges and opposition to High Speed 2 (HS2), the UK’s second primary high speed rail line, due to link London, Birmingham, East Midlands, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. The opposition isn’t just about the projected public cost of £56 billion – it is meeting the same NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Backyard) as airport expansion with many different residential groups who will be affected by it. And the track will have a length of 192 kilometres, more than 50 times the length of the new runway at Heathrow, disrupting far more communities.
In the meantime, keen observers of international airport traffic trends will have noted that with each passing year others are in danger of eclipsing Heathrow. Dubai DXB already snatched its title of busiest airport in the world for international traffic, at the beginning of 2015. And at the beginning of this year, Istanbul-Atatürk was only 2 places behind Heathrow in the list of busiest airports in Europe.
Around the time that the Davies Commission began its work in Spring 2013, the Turkish Government launched a tender for the construction of a brand new, six runway airport for Istanbul. Progress has been swift, as the lead interview of this magazine attests and at the current rate of going, few will be surprised if that airport opens ahead of any construction work beginning at Heathrow.
Time waits for no one.