Airports: too few or too many?

by Hugh Cortazzi

A hot political question in London in recent weeks has been the need for more airport capacity to meet the needs of business in the 21st century. A neutral observer might think that this is essentially a matter that should be settled on the basis of supply and demand and the relationship between these two factors and the costs, which must take into account noise and pollution.

In London, however, the problem has become more of a political than an economic one.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who form the present coalition government in Britain, came to power with commitments to oppose the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, London’s principal airport. The Labour opposition, which had favored the idea of expansion at Heathrow when they were in power, have also turned against the proposal. One might think that as all three parties are opposed that should be the end of the story.

But British businesses contend that London needs a bigger airport that can provide more direct flights to the growing number of Chinese international airports and can compete effectively with European airports such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfort, which have greater capacity than Heathrow and have become European hubs serving a wider range of destinations than Heathrow. They also have better transport links and fewer immigration bottlenecks than Heathrow.

The airline lobby and the Spanish company that owns Heathrow have understandably backed the demands for expansion of one of their most valuable assets. But a third runway would only be a temporary answer to increasing demand and space could not be found for a full-length runway.

The business lobby has persuaded a significant number of members of the Conservative Party and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to rethink the party’s opposition to a third runway. The lobby has already had some success. The Transport Secretary Justine Greening, whose constituency in West London is close to Heathrow, and who had declared her adamant opposition to a third runway, was moved from her post in the recent Cabinet reshuffle and replaced by a minister from the right wing of the party known to be more favorable to a change in policy. The coalition’s commitment and the strong feelings against Heathrow expansion in London constituencies make any early change in policy impossible.

So, to use a soccer idiom, the problem has been for the moment “kicked into touch” by the appointment of a commission to inquire into the needs for airport expansion in the southeast of England and to submit their report and recommendations in time for the Conservative Party to ditch their opposition to Heathrow expansion in their next election manifesto.

The problem cannot, however, be set aside so easily. Boris Johnson, the ambitious Conservative mayor of London, is not only vigorously opposed to expansion of Heathrow, but is also an enthusiastic proponent of the building of an entirely new hub airport in the Thames estuary that would be connected to London and the Channel Tunnel by high-speed rail links.

Johnson is reputed to see himself as a dynamic alternative to Prime Minister David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party and premier. There is no immediate likelihood that this ambition can be achieved, but Johnson has the gift of the gab and supreme self-confidence.

A new airport in the Thames estuary would take many years to construct and would require huge amounts of capital and engineering skills. There would be environmental objections on the grounds that the new airport would destroy bird habitats and alter the ecology of the estuary. It would be a difficult but not impossible project, but before it is launched there needs to be an objective analysis of the likely demand over many future decades and of the capacity of other airports to cope with growing numbers of passengers.

London has three other airports apart from Heathrow that can meet some of the demand. These are Gatwick to the south of London and Stansted and Luton to the north. All three face constraints on expansion, but none are in the same kind of urban environment as Heathrow, where air traffic has to pass low over residential areas.

There are other airports in England that can take the strain of holiday and to a lesser extent of business traffic, including those at Birmingham, Southampton and Bristol.

It is also open to question how far British business and the British economy is disadvantaged by the fact that businessmen cannot get direct flights from Britain to all the destinations covered by other European hubs. Does this fact really have any impact on decisions about investment and location of businesses? Lobbying by airlines is not objective.

Airports pose somewhat different issues for Japan. The expansion of Haneda has taken some of the heat away from Narita. Osaka and Nagoya have fine new international airports. Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong compete as Asian hub airports, but are further apart than the four European hubs (London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam). I used to think that Japan had too many regional airports. Was it really necessary or economic for every prefecture to have one or sometimes two airports, especially when Japan has such well developed and modern rail networks with increasing numbers of high-speed trains?

Did Kobe for instance really need a separate airport when Osaka, part of the same urban conurbation had two?

But as in Britain the provision of airports is tied up with politics and objectivity in assessing the economic needs is difficult to achieve. Balancing economic benefits against the impact on the lives of those who live under the fly paths of aircraft is even more problematic.

Other factors that need to be considered as objectively as possible, in reaching decisions on building and or expanding airports, include the improvements being made by aircraft engine manufacturers in reducing pollution and noise and improving safety. But whatever improvements are made no one is ever likely to want to live next door to an airport if there are better alternatives.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.