Heathrow may have shot itself in the foot

Blog by John Stewart

18th July 2013

Heathrow Airport may have shot themselves in the foot with the proposals they published yesterday.  http://mediacentre.heathrowairport.com/Press-releases/Heathrow-unveils-a-new-approach-to-third-runway-5e2.aspx.  The details of their arguments about each of the options have got lost in the sheer scale of what they have put forward.  It allowed the Evening Standard to splash the dramatic, but not inaccurate, headline across its front page: Super-Heathrow with 4 Runways – airport unveils plan for handling up to million flights a year

http://www.standard.co.uk/news/transport/super-heathrow-airport-unveils-4runway-plan-which-would-let-it-handle-a-million-flights-per-year-8713879.html .    The perception is that huge expansion is on the cards; that Heathrow has become a city state on the edge ofLondon which is threatening to blight large swathes of the capital and beyond.

The irony is that this is the result of probably the most transparent announcement Heathrow has ever made.  Gone are the denials of old – such as the statements of former CEO Sir John Egan in the 1990s that BAA didn’t want a third runway – http://youtu.be/K_y8182FuPY . Colin Matthews, the amiable boss of Heathrow, has worked hard to change things.  And in recent years the concerns of residents about noise have been taken seriously in a way that didn’t happen previously.  Heathrow, for example, recognizes the importance of respite periods.

Moreover, the document issued yesterday is right to argue that some residents under the existing flight paths will experience less noise in the coming years.  Quieter planes, steeper glideslopes, together with a guarantee of no increase in flight numbers, will improve the noise climate in a number of places.  (HACAN, of course, would argue that this could be done without the need for additional runways: http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/Heathrow_in_a_noisy_league_of_its_own.pdf).

But yesterday there was a lot of sceptism about Heathrow’s claims that the overall noise climate could improve with a third, and even a fourth runway, in place, given that a third runway would increase flight numbers by 250,000 a year, resulting in a total of 760,000 flights using Heathrow, rising to almost a million with a fourth runway.

Heathrow’s noise reduction claims will need to be explored in more detail but I suspect they are underestimating the impact of aircraft noise on communities under a flight path for the first time.  I was struck yesterday when being interviewed in Stanwell Moor, under threat of demolition, that a community which had grown up with aircraft noise was relatively undisturbed by it.  It will not be the same in Ham or Tooting Bec if they get it for the first time.

But the abiding memory of yesterday’s announcement for the public at large will not be about the detail of noise levels but of concrete and destruction.  Thousands of more homes under threat of demolition.  Four runways. Blight.  A million planes over London and the Home Counties.  That may all be hard on Heathrow.  Their document was much more considered and complex than that.  But I suspect the sheer scale of its proposals have hardened and widened opposition to expansion: from local residents, the public at large, local authorities and climate activists.  The climate movement will now be limbering up for another battle of Heathrow.  Indeed, yesterday’s announcement prompted the Guardian’s Damian Carrington to pen this piece: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2013/jul/17/heathrow-third-runway-aviation-emissions?CMP=twt_gu

Heathrow put their cards on the table yesterday, with no jokers hidden in the pack.  It may not, though, turn out to be a winning hand.





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