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Aviation and Politics: Will Heathrow Grow?

On May 12 this year, here on KJM Today, The Aviation Oracle questioned whether or not the planned expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport would actually happen.

Since then (and it was only just under two months ago yet still KJM Today was the first to raise it) a number of things have happened to emphasise the matter further.

Above - Heathrow sees more Airbus A380 flights than any other airport (Kevan James)

The most significant was the departure of Theresa May as leader of the Conservatives, thus opening the way for a successor to be chosen by the party. Once that has been done, a new Prime Minister will take office and lead the country. The problem is of course, who that person will be.

Having narrowed the choice for Tory party members to choose one from to the final two, it is one of those men who hold the future of the UK’s air transport and its supporting infrastructure in their hands.

Of the two final candidates, Jeremy Hunt has, up until now, not made any comments regarding Heathrow’s expansion, although his opponent, Boris Johnson, has. Johnson of course made his now infamous remark about ‘lying down in front of the bulldozers’ to prevent work starting on the airport’s new runway then absented himself from the House of Commons when the time came to actually vote on it.

Transport infrastructure has never been a simple matter of an operator, be it a railway company or an airport owner (local authority or private owner) deciding to build something and then getting on with it. To build a rail line or an airport runway has always required an Act of Parliament. Consequently, developing any kind of transport network has also always been subject to politics and political games. This is a point that has featured heavily in the story of Heathrow since the idea was first conceived during World War II.

(The full details can be found in my book, ‘Heathrow Airport, An Illustrated History’, published in 2016. This edition has almost sold out now but an updated second edition, ‘Heathrow Airport 70 Years and Counting’ brings the tale up to date, to 2019. The second edition is due out this year).

The problem with politicians holding sway over transport is that rarely, if ever, are they experts in the field. Indeed, one can go further and suggest that real knowledge and expertise has never been found in them. As a consequence, their decision making is heavily influenced by those around them in the form of civil servants, advisors and those directly involved in the industry concerned. Naturally those who are involved tend to be biased in favour of that industry, in this case, commercial air transport. The average civil servant however may not necessarily have the expertise required to be of much use and advisors are usually following their own political agenda, which might not reflect the views and policies of the party their minister is a member of.

Although politicians will listen to the industry professionals and their civil servants, both they and their advisors have what is to them a far more important consideration – whether or not they will lose or gain votes from what they do. This again has always been the primary thought and motivation; to do not what is right but what gets and subsequently keeps them in office. And this is Heathrow Airport’s problem.

Boris Johnson’s headline-grabbing remark about bulldozers was just that; an attempt to grab headlines. At the time he was still mayor of London and had proposed his own idea of a completely new airport in the Thames Estuary, away from the population and where aircraft noise would be less of an issue. The cost of such a project is beyond the imagination of most people, including one suspects, Johnson himself. He can of course, point to the examples of other new airports elsewhere and say that it can be done. Osaka’s Kansai Airport in Japan is one but Japanese economics between 1987, when work began and 1994 (when Kansai opened) are not the same as those in the UK in 2019. Given the extraordinary cost of a new airport built on reclaimed land it was discounted by the Howard Commission who deliberated on the question of where to build new airport infrastructure.

Left - Osaka Kansai

(TDK-wikimedia commons)

Cost however, is but one consideration. The biggest and most long-standing is that of aircraft noise. There is a well-entrenched and implacable opposition to any form of air transport on the basis that noise alone renders living near any airport a nightmare. Noise is an issue that has dominated air travel since the late 1950s, when the jet airliner first took to the skies. There is no doubt at all that jets did make a huge amount of noise and many airports around the world are surrounded by residential areas, so it can be thought of as a valid point. Yet who chooses to live near an airport? Especially a busy one like Heathrow. The answer is that a vast majority live where they do because they earn their living, directly or indirectly, from the airport they reside close to. This is why surveys have consistently shown that most residents in the areas around Heathrow are in favour of expansion. The complaints, and the protests, often come from those who live further away but can still hear an airliner, however distant.

Noise however, is less of a problem than it once was. Whether one cares to admit it or not, the jet engines that power commercial airliners are noticeably quieter than they used to be. Can they get quieter still? There are those who say not – but there are also those who say they can. On the basis that airliner engines will make less noise as technology continues to advance, noise becomes not quite the problem it is made out to be.

If noise is not so much of an issue now, and will be even less so in the not too distant future, what other objections can there be? Today’s big thing is that of pollution. The most consistent argument against expanding Heathrow is that such an expansion will increase emissions to an unacceptable level. Yet the same point applies to the effluence produced by aircraft engines as applies to noise; today’s engines produce considerably less in the way of exhaust fumes than previous generation engines and manufacturers continue to push the boundaries further and further. What goes in to those engines is also changing; bio-fuels are being developed and in some cases are now being trialled and used, that produce very little in the way of harmful emissions.

It is admittedly my opinion but if one could look ahead, there will come a time when people will not even notice an airliner as it either arrives or departs. Aircraft will be clean, quiet and environmentally friendly. That development however is not confined to the UK or any one single country. It is a global effort and air transport is the link that binds both countries and development together.

Heathrow Airport’s history has been littered with countless politicians seeking the easy way out and garnering votes by doing so. It is why the airport has the problem that is has today. Do you know how many runways Heathrow had when it first opened in 1946? How many runways were included in the original plans? Buy my book, it will tell you. It will also tell you of the way in which air transport has been used as a vote-scoring game by politicians down the ages. If Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister and carries on with this ‘tradition’ (for want of a better word) and gives way to those who shout the loudest, he will be doing the UK and its future a huge disservice.

Not expanding Heathrow will place the UK behind everybody else when it comes to where the country stands at the forefront of a better way of doing what we do now. And ultimately, if the world cannot come here and we cannot go there, the country and its population, including those who protest now, will be the losers.

© Kevan James 2019.

Heathrow Airport 70 years and Counting will be published later in 2019

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