Friday, October 23, 2015

Wither Heathrow ...

In days of yore - or possibly a little more recently - Heathrow was the busiest international airport in the world. Today Dubai is, and other European airports are catching Heathrow quickly, with Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Istanbul all growing faster.  Heathrow is near capacity and airport capacity has an impact on the economy.

For this reason, governments have been looking into expanding Heathrow for decades.  However, since flying in and out of Heathrow involves aircraft flying over London and surrounding towns, craven governments have been carefully not making up their minds for just as long.  (Officially they gave the job to the Airport Commission).

Here are the pros and cons, in simple language of the various options.
  1. Expand Heathrow.  Adding a runway and associated infrastructure.
  2. Expand Gatwick.  Adding a runway and associated infrastructure.
  3. Build a totally new airport in the Thames Estuary ("Boris Island")
London's morning wake up call
Though attractive in many ways,  Boris Island is probably not feasible right now so the alternatives are Gatwick or Heathrow.  If Heathrow gets the nod, Gatwick will survive probably continuing as a centre for cheap and charter flights.  If Gatwick wins, the long-term viability of Heathrow will be threatened.

So here, ladies, gentlemen, Knights of the Realm and commoners, are the reasons why the answer is Gatwick.
  • Death

    Flying remains the safest form of mass transport.  Still it is not risk-free and the most dangerous parts of a flight are take-off and landing.  Indeed, in 2008 BA Flight 38 crash landed just short of the runway at Heathrow.  Miraculously there were no fatalities; had it crashed a few seconds earlier there would have been deaths on the plane and on the ground. Sooner or later it is likely that an aircraft flying into or out of London will crash.  If it is flying into Heathrow the death toll will at least be in the hundreds with many or most of these being on the ground; if flying into Gatwick, which is largely surrounded by open countryside, the toll will be much lower.  In short, Heathrow is likely to kill more people than Gatwick.
  • Noise

    Aircraft flying around Heathrow cause noise disturbance to hundreds of thousands of people.  In the case of Heathrow adding a third runway, it's estimated that up to a million people in London would suffer from noise pollution, and that's almost certainly an underestimate. In the case of Gatwick less than a tenth of that number of people would be affected.  We're talking about people whose sleep is affected every day; schools where teaching suffers because of the noise; and the health impacts (hypertension, heart attacks and dementia among others). Some of these are covered in a recent CAA report.  In short, Heathrow is likely to kill and maim more people than Gatwick.
  • Air Pollution

    Even without Heathrow, London would be a busy city with slow-moving and polluting vehicles.  Heathrow makes this much worse.  In addition, it is on the western edge of London and with prevailing winds being from west to east its pollution spreads across the city.  In comparison, around Gatwick there are far fewer people to be affected.
So, where do we go from here?  There really is just one viable solution that's affordable, viable, safe and future proof: Gatwick.  Or what I think of as "Gatwick+".  It goes like this:
  1. Build a second runway at Gatwick.  This can be done quickly and much cheaper than Heathrow (probably about half the time and half the cost).  Build a lot of infrastructure around it: much M23 and M25 expansion.  More Gatwick Express services (rail connection to London).  More and faster Gatwick to Reading rail services to connect to the Thames Valley technical centres.
  2. Build a third runway at Gatwick.  Move almost all passenger traffic to Gatwick (some might go to Birmingham or other London airports).  Heathrow becomes a purely freight airport.
  3. Build a fourth runway at Gatwick.  Shut down Heathrow.  Bring sanity and cleaner air back to the lives of millions of Londoners.  Re-develop Heathrow as desperately-needed housing and parkland for the capital.  Much of the infrastructure (transport, utilities) needed for housing is there already.
Gatwick is the logical choice
If this strategy was adopted, the new Gatwick could probably be delivered by 2030.  The owners of Heathrow would need compensation: part of this could be giving them the right to buy into the new Gatwick; part would be the money raised by selling the land for development; part would probably need to be paid by government.  

The infrastructure needed should be delivered up front: a fast Gatwick to Reading rail link with just one or two stops taking forty minutes, for example.  Six lanes on the M23 and M25.  Get the redevelopment misery over in two years while the second runway is being built rather than ongoing bit by bit development over a decade or two.

Heathrow (while more convenient to me in Hampshire) is the worst of all solutions.  If we are smart and want to take a strategic decision we need to do away with Heathrow on a planned basis.  It's done a great job over more than fifty years but it's time to let it wither and develop a better solution.

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