A third runway? Yes, and a fourth too, please

Oct 5, 2012

The people on the 6am to Zurich are not travelling for fun, but because their trip matters to their company and our prosperity. Flying is critical to Britain as an outward-looking nation and as an island at the edge of a continent. In particular, we need a hub airport. Only by collecting travellers from around Europe — and sometimes beyond — can we make flights to new destinations economically viable.

Every major city has a four-runway hub airport — Paris, New York, even Madrid. That is what Britain needs. And the airport must be efficiently designed, which means a “toast rack” layout with parallel terminals and aircraft piers sitting like pieces of toast between the runways. Atlanta and Denver are built like this, as is Foster + Partners’ proposed estuary airport. But no British airport looks like that at present.

Designing an airport on paper is straightforward, but locating a four-runway airport in the South East is difficult. The reality is that flying comes at a cost — as those woken up by the 4.50am Heathrow arrival from Hong Kong know all too well.

This is why all parties have opposed Heathrow’s expansion at some point, and in theory all still do. The Tories appear to be wavering in their opposition, while Labour has reversed its earlier support. The Lib Dems have consistency on their side, but that includes opposing all increases in capacity at all South East airports.

Noise around Heathrow explains the appeal of a Thames Estuary airport. But flying is about speed, and passengers need an airport that is easy to get to from their homes and places of work. For this reason not all London airports are equally effective. Even HACAN — the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise — does not argue for Heathrow’s closure.

The reality is that just as Heathrow is a terrible location, it is also an outstanding location. The Civil Aviation Authority reports that more passengers start their journey within 30 minutes of Heathrow than any other UK airport. The sorry history of Montreal’s Mirabel airport stands as a warning to those who think airports are easy to move.

The best plan is for a new Heathrow, larger but quieter. This can be achieved by constructing four runways, but placing them to the west of the current site. The runways would be over the M25, the Poyle industrial estate, the Wraysbury reservoir and part of Stanwell Moor.

The existing runways would be decommissioned, but the site retained. Terminals 1-3 and 5 would remain operational, and a new terminal would open at the western end of the airport. The airport would be an appropriate size for the number of planes using it. Building the airport would be a large but not technically difficult project. Reservoirs are not difficult to relocate, and motorways pass under runways at Paris, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Generous compensation would be paid to those whose houses and businesses are affected. This airport is large enough to handle comfortably 75 per cent more flights and passengers than at present. It would be big enough to handle the country’s needs for a generation. Critically, this airport must be quiet if it is to be socially acceptable. Moving the runways west means fewer people are affected by noise, because more people live east of Heathrow than west. Furthermore, the runways would be as close together as regulations and best practice permit, to minimise the number of people who live under the flightpath. These two factors will reduce the noise nuisance, and one assessment suggests that they alone would reduce daytime noise by a quarter.

In addition, Heathrow already has night-time noise limits on planes. These would be tightened and would apply all day. Every plane would have to be as quiet as the new Airbus A380. The time it takes to build a new airport will allow airlines to make the fleet adjustments needed. The availability of extra slots means that — no ifs, no buts — night flights would end.

Finally, narrow-bodied and wide-bodied planes would land on separate runways, with the narrow bodies descending more steeply. This means that they would be higher up in the descent, creating less noise on the ground. These measures should offset the effect on Windsor of moving the airport west. No airport will ever be silent, but this one is considerably quieter than today’s Heathrow.

The airport would be designed for business passengers. A light-rail shuttle would run across the airport, taking passengers from train and tube, bus and car to terminal and pier. Passengers with hand luggage only would go directly to the pier, where they would pass through security and immigration. The airport will offer a 20-minute journey from perimeter to gate. The same would be true in reverse, and the cross-airport shuttle would also ease transfers. Heathrow will become a pleasure, not a hassle, for passengers.

It is not possible to assess the cost of this airport accurately at this stage. That said, much of the airport is in place already: the Heathrow Express and Piccadilly lines, two terminal complexes, fuel supplies, air traffic control and so on. It is hard to believe that the cost will exceed half that of any new airport. The resulting design represents global best practice, and would minimise operational costs and taxiing times.

Together, this package offers Britain a global quality hub airport at a financial and social cost that makes sense for travellers, taxpayers and local residents alike.

This article originally appeared on The Times’s website (£)

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