Does the Government delaying the decision on runway alternation herald a change in government policy?

Heathrow alternation plan is not cricket, by Christian Wolmar.

Beware the press release slipped out on a Friday. The Department for Transport is often guilty of this attempt to take advantage of the journalistic tradition of seeking alternative occupations to sitting in the news room on a Friday afternoon, and the Department’s latest effort in this regard was an announcement about runway alternation at Heathrow.

The release seemed innocuous enough, announcing that the consultation on plans to end runway alternation at the airport has now been postponed until the autumn. This might sound a minor issue of consequence to only to a few unlucky people who live under the flight path of the massive airport, but actually it is a biggy for several reasons.

There are two parallel runways at Heathrow and though they are only a few hundred yards apart, the noise for those who live near the flight path is very different depending on whether planes are landing, the noisiest, or taking off. So the use is switched around at 3pm everyday.

It might sound trivial, but last summer I played a game of cricket under the flight path and until the changeover at 3pm, it was virtually impossible to concentrate. But after that one hardly noticed them.

The temporary aviation minister, Derek Twigg — the incumbent, Karen Buck, having chucked in the job presumably because she could not quite see how she was going to make a difference given the ‘predict and provide’ nature of Labour’s aviation policy – suggested in his statement that the ‘issues are complex’. That was a masterful statement of the obvious, but the extra spanner that has been thrown in the works is the discovery, equally obvious, that allowing alternation would increase the number of aircraft movements at the airport from 470,000 to 550,000, exacerbating the pollution problem which has already prevented any immediate progress on the building of a third runway.

Allowing mixed mode use of runways is more efficient, allowing more take offs and landings, but would greatly affect people living under the flight path. An ICM survey carried out on behalf of the Mayor of London found that three quarters of those living under the flight path wanted runway alternation to continue, since it gives residents half a day of relative piece and quiet.

For Londoners, this is a matter of greater concern even than night flights and if the change is allowed to go ahead, it will be a massively unpopular decision for residents of a whole swathe of the capital. Noise is the most obvious effect, but air pollution, with a reduction required to meet European emission standards, is the most immediate issue.

Here, at last, is a way for ministers to move towards a more environmentally responsible aviation policy without taking responsibility themselves since they can simply blame Europe. Aviation clearly does not pay for its externalities (the economists’ term for damaging effects which are not captured by normal market price mechanisms) and which are very difficult to estimate.

I live 15 miles away from the airport but I am still regularly woken up by the early B747s and A340s that are allowed to fly in between 6am and 7am to suit business friendly departure times in the Far East and North America. What value is my beauty sleep? At the moment it does not even come into the equation since notionally I am not considered to be in the official noise footprint despite being frequently able to hear planes.

For those nearer the airport, runway alternation is a step too far that will, quite literally, wreck many people’s lives. In standing up to the limitless appetite of the aviation industry, the government would be sending a signal that the days of ever growing aviation cannot continue for ever.

Deferring the decision because of ‘complexity’ and then burying the decision on a Friday may be the first sign that the government is prepared to seek a new balance between environmental and business interests in aviation.

The government’s deferral of even consulting on this tricky issue will also be watched carefully by the bidders circling around BAA like planes stacking up over Clacton. They will realise that many of the decisions affecting the company’s profitability are not in the hands of the managers but at the whim of the government and even public opinion. Now how will that translate into the share price?