BAA’s Magic Solution to Airport Pollution Shown to be an Illusion

The world’s first airport without any planes

BAA’s Terminal 5 case is based upon the claim that an additional 30 million passengers per year can be accommodated at Heathrow with negligible environmental harm. To achieve this, BAA has discovered the magic solution to airport pollution: the world’s first airport without any planes. According to BAA, this massive addition of capacity, equivalent to building an airport the size of Charles de Gaulle in Paris or Amsterdam Schiphol on top of the existing Heathrow, will generate hardly any additional flights. Since flights barely increase there will be no noticeable increase in noise pollution.

This theory was first outlined in detail in BAA’s first official submission in relation to its Terminal 5 planning application, its Environmental Statement published in February 1993. This explained how the advent of larger aircraft would create the miracle of pollution-free airport expansion:

The proposed development would increase the passenger handling capacity of Heathrow in 2016 from 50 million passengers per annum (mppa) to 80 mppa. This would be achieved on the current pattern of the existing runways, and by a marginally greater number of passenger air transport movements (patms). The forecast annual number of patms with Terminal 5 is 420,000. This exceeds the 400,000 patms forecast without Terminal 5 by 5%. The greater numbers of larger aircraft in the with Terminal 5 case allow a similar number of movements to carry a significantly larger number of passengers. (BAA Environmental Statement para 2.48, page 17)

The easy way to do environmentally friendly forecasting

This forecast has been superseded (see analysis below) but it is instructive to examine it for the light it sheds on the reliability of BAA’s forecasting. The chart below shows this forecast in graph form. The actual figures for flight numbers at Heathrow for the ten years prior to 1993 are also shown.

You do not need a PhD in airport economics to find this forecast wildly implausible. BAA stated that over a 24 year period during which Europe’s third largest airport would be built at Heathrow, flights would increase by about 40,000. In the preceding ten years, with no addition of terminal capacity, flights had increased by approximately 140,000.

Having made this forecast, the impressive looking 700 page, two volume Environmental Statement examined the consequences of building Terminal 5 and, amazingly enough, found that the proposed terminal would have little environmental impact. BAA offered the tempting prospect of having the environmental cake of no additional pollution, while eating the economic cake of expanding the airport.

Dramatic failure of BAA’s forecasts

Unfortunately, this fairy tale has already been proved to be an illusion. The chart below shows the actual figures for flight numbers since 1993.

Instead of taking 23 years and a fifth terminal for flight numbers to reach 420,000, they reached this level in August 1996, taking three years with no new terminal in sight. As the chart shows, flight numbers have simply continued their previous trend rate of increase. The miracle of larger aircraft failed to take place as planned. It is a certainty that, if a fifth terminal was built, flight numbers would be well in excess of those on which the Environmental Statement is based. Therefore, most of the Environmental Statement and its claims of minimal environmental impact are worthless.

Forecasts produced to order rather than to fit reality

This episode raises the important question of how much credibility can be given to BAA’s forecasts in relation to Terminal 5. There are two possible explanations for the dramatic errors in BAA’s Environmental Statement. The first is that BAA’s forecasting team are hopelessly incompetent. We find this an unlikely explanation. The Environmental Statement forecast defies the accumulated knowledge of how Heathrow operates. Although it is true that the history of forecasts of flight numbers at Heathrow is one of consistent underestimates, we find it hard to believe that BAA’s forecasting team are unaware of this record, particularly given the fact that the team’s members made many of the earlier inaccurate forecasts. The second possible explanation is that BAA’s forecasters were given a brief by their superiors to produce a set of numbers which, although they bore no relation to reality, would support the company’s application for the highly profitable expansion of Heathrow by suggesting that this could happen without environmental damage. This appears to us the only credible explanation. It should be remembered that BAA expected the Public Inquiry to have been completed some time ago so that its forecasts would not be subject to test in the light of experience. In practice, the start of the Inquiry was later than expected and it is famously taking longer than expected to complete.

BAA’s second attempt

Given the delayed start to the Inquiry, it had become obvious to BAA when it came to prepare its formal Statement of Case 20 months later in December 1994 that its Environmental Statement forecasts would be ridiculed. Therefore it increased its forecast. It is a familiar pattern at Heathrow that forecasts follow on limping behind reality, rather than predicting the future. The new forecast, which still stands, is as follows:

The forecast number of patms at 80 mppa with Terminal 5 is 453,000, exceeding the forecast number of patms at 50 mppa without Terminal 5 by 36,000, or 8.6%. Greater numbers of larger aircraft with Terminal 5 allow a significantly larger number of passengers to be carried on a larger number of movements without any extension of the operating day or pressure otherwise to increase movements in the night hours or to abandon the present operating regime. (BAA Statement of Case para 10.7, p. 76)

Readers will notice that although the numbers have changed, the story remains the same. Within a period of 20 months, the forecast flight numbers for Heathrow with Terminal 5 had increased by 33,000. However, reality is already running ahead of this revised forecast, a further 20 months later. Flight numbers at Heathrow reached 422,000 in October 1996. Therefore BAA is predicting that over the next 20 years, with a massive fifth terminal, there will only be an additional 31,000 flights a year, a smaller margin than the increase in their forecast within 20 months. HACAN has predicted that on current trends, flight numbers at Heathrow will reach 453,000 by the year 2000, before a fifth terminal had even opened. This forecast has been supported at the Inquiry by the forecasting witness for the CAA, who forecast 456,000 flights by 2000.

More passengers means more flights means more noise

The reality, as those half a million of us who live under the Heathrow flightpaths are painfully aware, is very simple: more passengers means more flights which means more noise and other pollution. The relationship follows as night follows day.

If the reality is that Heathrow will reach the flight numbers BAA forecasts for Terminal 5 even before the terminal was built, then adding capacity for 30 million passengers can only mean a massive increase in flights. HACAN estimates that flight numbers with a fifth terminal would be between 550,000 and 600,000. In itself this obviously means more noise. But as we all know, Heathrow is already operating at the full capacity of its runways under current operating procedures.

Therefore more flights can only be accommodated by providing additional runway capacity. This can only be achieved by the following three mechanisms, and most likely by all three simultaneously:

  • additional night flights;
  • ending runway alternation;
  • a third runway.

Time to stop wasting public money chasing illusions

Sir John Egan of BAA chooses to avoid appreciating what is happening on the ground at Heathrow. He recently repeated a well-worn line in a speech to the Aviation Club of Great Britain:

“Unless we build an additional terminal by the year 2013 runway capacity will outstrip terminal capacity at Heathrow to the point where we would be wasting capacity for 30 million additional passengers.” (Sir John Egan, 16 October 1996)

Perhaps Sir John Egan actually believes the figures his staff are required to produce. If so, he is living in a fantasy world. There is no spare runway capacity at Heathrow and a fifth terminal could only mean another turn of the cycle of expansion to create the runway capacity to service the new terminal.

However, while BAA has millions to spend on its Terminal 5 application, it is costing substantial amounts of money and time for hard-pressed local authorities and anxiety for local residents. The application is clearly flawed throughout. The possibility of a fifth terminal was exhaustively examined at a Public Inquiry from 1981 to 1983 and rejected. There is something seriously wrong with a planning process which allows a company to place such a burden on the public by taking a hopeless gamble that a thoroughly unworkable and indefensible application will get through the system.

The leading Plc which has lost all credibility

Dermot Cox, HACAN’s Chairman, commented:

“I have never before seen a leading FTSE 100 Plc which has so completely lost the trust of the people of London. BAA persists in trying to force through its Terminal 5 proposals in the face of the nearly unanimous opposition of the people, as expressed through the democratic procedures of the Public Inquiry, their local councillors, MPs and residents groups. BAA plc is a young company, having been established for only ten years. You would never find more mature and responsible companies which operate ëdirty industries’, such as ICI or BP, behaving in this arrogant and confrontational manner. They know that long-term business success is dependent upon working with the community rather than attacking it head on.

“Now we can also prove the implausibility of the claims on which BAA has based its Terminal 5 proposals. Their underestimates of the environmental impact of building what would be Europe’s third largest airport on top of the existing Heathrow would be laughable were not the threat to our quality of life so deadly serious.”