The lack of information about where the new flights will be is emerging as a key criticism of the Department for Transport’s current consultation into the third runway at Heathrow. Commonsense would suggest that flight paths should be an integral part of any consultation on any new runway. After all, most people are pretty agnostic about a new runway. They only get interested if they hear that the runway will mean flights over their homes. Yet read the Department’s consultation document or go to one of its public exhibitions and information about flight paths is missing.
I’m not sure this is a deliberate plot to minimize the opposition to a third runway by withholding flight path information from people. It is more the result of very bad timing. The third runway consultation is being run in parallel to a national consultation on air space policy. The latter is being driven by a worldwide plan to modernize and make more efficient use of airspace. This would save the airlines money, time and fuel as well as cutting their climate change emissions. Also, it would allow airports to operate more flexibly and effectively. The consultation is asking for views on the principles which should inform airspace policy – for example, should flight paths be concentrated or dispersed; how much importance do people attach to respite; what would meaningful respite would look like.
And therein lies the problem for the Heathrow consultation. Until these key principles have been decided neither the Department for Transport (DfT) nor Heathrow can know for sure where the new flight paths for a third runway will be. Indeed, they cannot predict what will happen to flight paths even if Heathrow remains a two-runway airport.
So why, you might reasonably ask, did the DfT not consult on airspace policy well before the consultation on the third runway? The civil servants were keen to do so. Ministers, maybe understandably but unfortunately, have spent the last two years so focused on the toxic question of where a new runway should go that they allowed a backlog of other matters to build up.
Heathrow Airport itself is planning to start consulting in the autumn on the principles behind any flight path changes and to involve local communities in the process. And in 2018 flight paths will form part of its detailed plans for a third runway if Parliament approves the new runway.
Through no fault of Heathrow this will be the first time that many, many people will be aware that a third runway flight path could affect them. I suspect there will be real anger. The fact is Ministers, by refusing to sort out flight path policy well in advance of the consultation, have caused an unholy mess.
The DfT appointed the former judge, Sir Jeremy Sullivan, to ensure the third runway consultation was fair and reasonable. I trust he will have a few choice words for ministers on the absence of flight paths when he submits his report on the process in early summer.