London Heathrow. Photograph: Getty
The recent flurry of proposals to the Airports Commission on how to deal with capacity come hot on the heels of the Transport Committee’s report on Aviation Strategy. In preparing our report we spent nine months gathering written and oral evidence from business groups, local campaigners, environmental groups, airlines, airport operators, air traffic managers, and many others.
UK airports handled a staggering 221 million passengers in 2012, 1.4 million more than in 2011. The latest passenger forecasts predict that unconstrained demand at UK airports—with no airspace constraints or capacity limitations—will be 320 mppa (million passengers per annum) by 2030 and 480 mppa by 2050.
The UK aviation sector had a turnover in 2011 of around £53bn and generated around £18bn of economic output. Aviation also supports the economy by providing businesses across all sectors with greater connectivity to international markets. Hub airports like Heathrow are vital for connecting incoming transfer passengers and making flights out to new destinations more viable.
For many years Heathrow has operated with two runways at full capacity while other competitor hubs, such as Paris, Frankfurt and Schiphol, have benefitted from having four to six runways each. Alongside this, the growth of large hubs in the Middle East has threatened the UK’s position as an international aviation hub.
We looked closely at the main options to address the critical issue of aviation capacity in the UK. We rejected ideas for a new hub to the east of London, including plans for a new airport in the Thames Estuary area, as research we commissioned showed significant public funding (£10-30bn) would be required. There were additional concerns around the impact on wildlife habitats, risk of birdstrike and problems with overcrowded airspace. Significantly, our research showed that the development of a new hub airport, regardless of its exact location, would mean the closure of Heathrow. This would have unacceptable consequences for the economy in and around west London and the M4 corridor.
We also rejected the notion of linking existing airports by high-speed rail to form a split-hub due to uncompetitive connection times. Nor would it be feasible to move flights to other regions or airports with spare capacity. Airlines are commercial entities and operate where there is a viable market. Ultimately, we concluded that expansion of Heathrow is the best option.
We recognise that the main argument against expansion of Heathrow is environmental. Noise, in particular, is a significant issue for the hundreds of thousands of people living nearby. It is important to remember that Heathrow did not start out surrounded by quite so many people. A new hub to the east of London might, in due course, also have a large local population with similar concerns about noise. Nevertheless, if Heathrow expands it is essential that its environmental impacts are properly addressed. Local air quality should be improved, planes must get quieter, flight paths and landing angles should be reviewed, and a comprehensive approach to noise compensation must be developed. Shifting Heathrow’s new runway to the west, away from people under the flight path might also reduce noise annoyance. Heathrow’s recent proposals address this issue.
Looking at the UK’s broader aviation strategy, we concluded that an expanded Heathrow could better serve the whole of the UK by providing protected slots to flights from regions that are currently poorly connected. We also made recommendations on how the Government should support airports outside the south east, improve road and rail infrastructure around existing airports, and address concerns about the level of taxation, particularly Air Passenger Duty.
It is, however, hub capacity that remains the main unresolved issue in the UK’s aviation strategy. It can no longer be avoided. Our recommendation is clear: for the benefit of the whole of the UK, the government must allow Heathrow to expand.
Louise Ellman MP is chair of House of Commons transport select committee.
To read its report in full go to: tinyurl.com/hoc-aviation