Prorogue One: An Airport Planning Story
Deciding whether to build something is often the hardest hurdle of all; just ask London Heathrow.
In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a cadre of rebellion fighters work together to steal the plans for the Galactic Empire’s new world-destroying space station. It’s a shame our dear rebels didn’t grow up in modern Britain. If they did, they could have stayed at home, as it would never have been built to begin with.
Britain can build great things. From great arched station halls, to overscaled Victorian sewers, many of our historic feats of construction have stood the test of time. London’s Crossrail project, the subject of my last post, is a cathedral to modern British engineering excellence; clean, spacious, and welcoming for tourists and commuters alike. It shows what we can build once we get the spades in the ground. Our main problem... we’re not very good at getting the spades in the ground to start with.
Britain barely builds any more. What we do build; we build reluctantly, after years (if not decades) of deferrals, delays, and descopings. The cost of a lack of ambition: One of the worst rates of economic growth per capita in the developed world. The NIMBYs are winning and we’re all poorer for it. Like the Death Star targeting a planet, they hone in on every new development proposal and blow it to smithereens. It’s no wonder we have a shortage of homes, hospitals, schools, and runways.
There are few places where our collective inability to invest in the future is more apparent that at London Heathrow Airport. The UK’s gateway to the world, Heathrow is the jewel in the crown of European aviation (or at least, it is for now). London is the largest aviation hub in the world by passenger traffic, and Heathrow takes the lion’s share of that market - so much so that in 2019 (the most recent ‘normal’ year for which there are statistics), over 80 million passengers passed through the airport on almost half a million flights, to around 200 destinations.
But Heathrow is creaking at the seams; despite a doubling of passenger numbers over the past 30 years, all flights still operate from two of its original post-war runways, albeit longer and modernised. Whilst a marketer might enjoy holding the title of ‘World’s Busiest Two Runway Airport’, it’s an operator’s nightmare, and Heathrow has held it for decades. Without another runway, London risks losing market share to its European neighbours at Amsterdam Schipol and Paris Charles de Gaulle, both of which saw faster passenger growth rates in the years leading up to the pandemic.
Heathrow’s success as an international gateway is unsurprising when you consider its history. It lies on the site of the world’s first international airport, it serves one of the largest, richest cities in the world (which also happens to be on an island), and it’s on the ‘right’ side of the capital to access the rest of the UK. But there’s a further, more critical reason for its importance, and one which has to be understood in order to justify expansion when Heathrow’s competitors, such as Luton and Stansted, still have room to grow.
A New Spoke
If you’re taking a holiday to the Costa del Sol, it’s highly likely that you’ll take a direct flight from your local airport straight to Malaga. It’s common for short-haul, high traffic routes to have multiple options for travel, however, the further afield you go, the more likely it is that you have to connect. Similarly to how an intercity train journey might start with a local journey to a city-centre interchange, global aviation tends towards the hub and spoke model.
Hubs allow airlines to pool passengers from a larger region together onto a single plane, so wheras a city pair alone might only be able to justify a small jet once a week, pooling whole regions onto a single route could enable multiple flights a day. The hub model means 6 routes can connect 7 airports that might otherwise need 21.
Hubs save costs on staff, planes and fuel, and also enable far higher connectivity, with regular through journeys rather than rare direct ones, as well as opening up new markets. So if an airline wants to launch a new long-haul destination, it won’t solely be a direct service, but a connecting flight - it will be a new spoke to an existing hub. This is why you can get regular flights from Heathrow to New York and Dubai, but not from Southampton. Heathrow doesn’t just serve London, it serves Northern Europe.
The NIMBYs Strike Back (yet again)
If Heathrow needs a runway so badly, then why haven’t we built one? The answer, as with every delayed, descoped, or cancelled British infrastructure project, is politics.
In 2003, the then Transport Secretary, Alastair Darling, published ‘The Future of Air Transport’, a paper that was unequivocal in the importance of Heathrow. Here's just a few of the statements laying that out:
[Heathrow] has the highest number of international transfer passengers of any airport in the world.
It competes in this role primarily with the major continental airports of Northern Europe.
Heathrow’s excellent connections to the rest of the world have been a significant
factor in attracting foreign investment.
The demand for Heathrow is extremely strong, and always likely to be far in excess of its capacity.
London has perhaps the strongest local catchment area for international
air travel in the world.
Additional capacity at Heathrow would generate the largest direct net economic
benefits of any new runway option.
It is perhaps unsurprisng then, that the paper proposed that an additional runway be built in the South-East at Heathrow, to be opened around 2015-2020. Note that this was in addition to an initial additional runway in the South-East at Stansted, but critically, the paper recognised that only Heathrow would be able to fulfill a role as an international hub.
Fast forward to 2022, and not a single runway has been built in the South-East, despite continued growth in air traffic and passenger numbers. A long list of conditions was attached to the runway endorsements, ranging across noise, emmissions, and land usage, and alongside the fact that most airports are hemmed in by green belt protections, growing public opposition delayed any real attempt at proceeding.
By the time Alastair Darling was Chancellor, and in a position to put policy and cold hard cash behind expansion, the financial crisis hit, and he was swiftly kicked out of office by a coalition government led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
The Policy Menace
Those who are old enough to remember Cameron’s 2010 election campaign may recall his pushing of environmental credentials; ‘vote blue to go green’. Expanding airports was simply not going to work alongside such messaging, nor in the midst of widespread public spending cuts.
Nevertheless, Cameron still had a problem; the airport and aviation execs were still calling out for expansion, passenger numbers were rising, and capacity at Heathrow and Gatwick amongst others was being squeezed even further.
Cue the Airports Commission.
Established in 2012, the aim was to answer the question once and for all, with the group tasked to identify how the UK could “maintain its status as an international hub for aviation”, as well as assessing the long-term need for new runways and how best to meet it.
It took three years for the final report to be published, three years. The result was an almost identical endorsement to that which Darling had put forth twelve years prior: a third runway to the north of Heathrow, subject to strict noise, emissions, and land conditions, and an ultimatum of no future expansion beyond. Heathrow is the main hub airport in the UK, and if the hub airport is full, you either expand it, or replace it - there’s no in-between.
This law of aviation economics reared its head in the courts when advocates for Gatwick, tried and failed to justify their potential role as a second hub; the courts recognising that ‘the Gatwick second runway scheme would not maintain, but would threaten, the United Kingdom’s “global aviation hub status”’.
Much like other soft-shoeing in the UK, such as on new power stations or rail lines, politicians spent years avoiding making the decision on Heathrow even if it was the right decision; the can just got kicked down the road yet again.
It took another three years for the recommendation of the Commission to turn into policy. Chris Grayling, as Transport Secretary, published a National Planning Statement in June 2018 endorsing a third runway at Heathrow to be built by 2026.
Heathrow’s managers had used the government-induced lead time to continuously refine their masterplan for the expansion, and what they had produced was a masterclass in gold-plating. The endless conditions and contingencies laid down by the government and campaigners, had pushed Heathrow to consider every possible objection and seek to accomodate them. What started off as an additional runway to enable more air movements and to future proof capacity, had grown in scale and ambition. The Masterplan now includes:
A third runway and connecting taxiways,
An overhauled central terminal zone (T’s 1,2, and 3), an expanded west terminal (T5), and new island terminals,
Re-structuring the layout of airside cargo and maintenance facilities,
New hotels, logistics hubs, and an immigration removal centre,
Re-provisioning of allotments, schools, and community facilities,
Diverted, and upgraded, M25, M4, and A4,
Two new consolidated super car parks,
Provision for rail access from the west and the south,
The burial and re-routing of four waterways,
A 20km long ‘green-loop’, and,
Hectares of new parkland and open spaces on reclaimed landfill and former industrial sites.
This is all on top of generous compensation for owners of land as well as some of the most stringent environment planning conditions ever laid in the UK.
Planned environmental mitigations included road pricing around the airport, some of the toughest restrictions in the world for noise and particulate emmissions, reduced take-off and landing hours for runway operation, and a new system of ‘environmentally managed growth’ where the airport would actively manage emissions and mitigate where targets were not met, a scheme to-date untrialled at this scale in the UK.
The total cost of all this: £14 billion.
The Rise of Regionals
Nevertheless, this beautiful, pricey, masterplan ended up sitting on a shelf, because by 2019, there was yet another change in government, and Boris Johnson carried his opposition to Heathrow from the Mayor’s Office into Number 10.
2022, and another two PMs; the first was avidly in favour but is now deposed, and the second, our current PM Rishi Sunak. The calls for expansion still remain though, and as UK growth falters, a growing coalition is once again seeking support. A former Transport Secretary wrote shortly after Rishi’s crowning on how crucial Heathrow is to the UK’s future prosperity, and industry leaders continue to campaign. Yet Rishi’s cards remain close to his chest, and a new updated policy from the new government remains undeclared.
The inability to properly plan for the future and implement the agreed strategy over the past decade hasn’t frozen time completely howver. It has resulted in disjointed, piecemeal development across the wider South-East. Despite not being the primary recommendation for capacity increases, the past decade has seen expansion of passenger caps and enabling infrastructure at Bristol, Southampton, and Luton Airports, as well as in the heart of London at City. Even Gatwick has been using the capacity shortage to justify an application to use their existing second ‘backup’ runway for normal operations.
The growth in air traffic (that many Heathrow opponents said was not needed and would not happen) has happened anyway, but it’s spread across the country, it’s less efficient, it results in higher costs, and it pollutes more noise and emissions over a wider area and at greater strength than would have occured at a single location. Motorways, rail lines, and logistics hubs have to be upgraded to access many airports rather than one. Air traffic control has to juggle more flights to more destinations on more paths from more airports. And that’s before considering that many of these new flights will be for connecting journeys through Europe, rather than direct long-haul ones from the UK that only a larger hub can enable. As the world’s economic centre shifts towards the Far East, it’s Schipol and Charles de Gaulle that are becoming the gateways. It’s common sense to consolidate the share of flights flying from a primary hub. Our European competitors have been doing just that, whilst we have been diluting.
Despite that, a third runway at Heathrow remains as elusive as ever; after twenty years and twelve transport secretaries, it remains British policy but not practice.
This isn’t a unique phenomenon though; it comes up again and again in British infrastructure planning. HS2, the Transpennine Upgrade, new nuclear power stations and energy substations; all have examples of countless can-kicking even when industry and policy experts unianimously agree that an intervention is needed. Opponents to Darling’s third runway in 2003 claimed that, whether by virtue of new technology, economic changes, or sheer luck, we wouldn’t need a new runway by now, yet the reality is we still do. Those nuclear power stations that were cancelled and delayed a decade ago are also looking somewhat more useful today. And the state of British railways, dare I say more.
If we want to stop stagnation, then we need growth, and if we want growth, then we need to build. We can’t just postpone decisions forever. Politicans and policy-makers alike need to put policy into practice. Build new railways. Build new power stations. Build a third runway.
The rebellion against NIMBYism has begun.
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