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The Airports Dilemma

This week saw the publication of an interim report from the Airports Commission. This was established in 2012 to review UK airport capacity and the best ways to meet future needs. 

Predictably the main focus has been on Heathrow and Gatwick, our premier hub airports. Heathrow serves the largest passenger through-put of any international airport, last year handling 70 million passengers, and has no scope for further expansion of capacity with its current two runways. Gatwick operates at 85% capacity but is congested at peak times. 

There have been several previous reviews - the Roskill Commission in 1968 and a White Paper in 2003 - but neither led to action. The present review notes the delays congestion causes and the hardship passengers experience. The London airports dominate transatlantic travel but the Commission recognises challenges from their European competitors and suggests that failure to increase capacity could cost the UK economy between£30bn and £45bn. Moreover, the airports are privately owned and need to remain commercially competitive.

The Government cannot overlook the human, social and environmental consequences of any decision about the airports. The 725,000 people living under the Heathrow flight path endure excessive noise and atmospheric pollution and will (presumably) not welcome further expansion. The impact of growth on meeting climate change targets is another concern. There are also implications for the 76,700 Heathrow employees on site and another 7,700 in the immediate locality. This probably militates against replacing Heathrow with a new airport elsewhere. Suggestions that a replacement should be in a more sparsely inhabited Thames estuary locality appeals to Boris Johnson and his west London constituents but the profusion of bird life in the estuary and the relative closeness to the flight path into Schiphol airport are important safety issues. 

Those who live in the Midlands and the North may question the focus on London and the South East and ask why traffic could not be transferred to Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds-Bradford,  Birmingham and East Midlands airports. There are also smaller airports at Bristol, Bournemouth, Durham, Exeter, Cardiff, as well as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. London also has Luton, Stansted and London City airports. However, the Commission thinks there is no scope for compelling airlines and international passengers to use these less busy airports.

So the Commission’s interim conclusion is that an additional runway is needed in London by 2030 and another by 2050. They see the first best placed at Heathrow, either as a third runway or an extension of the existing northern runway so that it can operate as two runways. Gatwick is seen as the best place for the second addition. They also see the need for new infrastructure, including aides to better navigation and traffic management, improved rail links to and from the airports and an Independent Noise Commission. 

From a Christian perspective, people matter more than profit - but which people matter most? Airport employees and passengers have different interests to those living under the flight paths. Therein lies the dilemma that the Commission and Government face.