Aviation is getting greener but at a pace far behind the rate at which international demand for air travel, and the development of new and expanded airports, is growing. Into this febrile environment, the Government has launched its plans for Heathrow. Jon Herbert looks at the conflicting agendas converging west of London.

Istanbul’s new international airport will have six runways; Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport already has six. In contrast, Britain hasn’t built a new major runway since the 1940s. However, Heathrow is about more than simply an expanding airport. Rather, it is a fundamental clash of technological, sustainable and commercial ideas.

Whatever eventually emerges from the Government’s new determination to see a third runway built west of London, it will almost certainly be prolonged, bloody and contentious. The result may also send out key messages other than the Government’s stated aim of showing that the UK is open for business.

Many separate battles will be fought. The cabinet is split. Local councils are set to wage war on the Government. Neighbourhood communities are up in arms. However, the North thinks the vision of airport expansion in the South is wonderful. Even Scotland is officially pro- a larger Heathrow. Why wouldn’t it be?

Meanwhile, business, in the form of the CBI and Chambers of Commerce, says that expansion is vital in a competitive global market where the influence and opportunities of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) is growing but Heathrow and Gatwick are both near to full capacity.

Opposing this interpretation, anti-expansion groups believe more flying is unnecessary and sends an environmentally-irresponsible message to a warming world that is supposed to be committed to climate change mitigation. Reinforcing this view, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns that the UK’s unique Climate Change Act is in jeopardy and to expand Heathrow and stay within the UK’s carbon-reduction commitments could mean no other new UK runway ever being built again. That isn’t pleasing news for the regions which see a larger Heathrow as a stepping-stone to expansion at Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Everything is up in the air.

It’s the environment, stupid

What differentiates Heathrow from Gatwick and other options in the south east is a perplexing mix of macro- and micro-environmental factors.

Heathrow is cursed or blessed in being squeezed in between the busy M4 and M25 — which is 30-years-old this month — motorways with winds that carry London’s poor air quality over its site and sensors. Britain is already struggling to meet — and frequently breaks — EU air quality standards with roads named as the main culprit.

It has been argued that a future Heathrow could operate successfully within a statutory pollution framework based on the assumption that more efficient “Euro 6” diesel engines emitting fewer nasty particulates, plus a successful conversion to an electric vehicle economy driven by green power, will make the global aviation hub effectively sustainable. By one calculation, 57% of London’s vehicle fleet would have to be converted from diesel to green electricity.

The impact of roads is currently so bad that even without expansion, the A4 running north of the airport will almost certainly exceed EU nitrogen dioxide safety limits by 2030 if nothing was done. Although NO2 from Heathrow would increase if a third runway is built, the projected improvements in road transport should mean that this rise is countered balanced by significant reductions elsewhere in the wider west London environment. The problem is one of synchronising the projected changes within competing timeframes.

Also, this is not a solution that endears itself to residents expecting to see an airliner passing low over their rooftops every 70 seconds. Nor are they impressed by the promise that a six-and-a-half hour night moratorium on flights extended from 5am to 5.30am will allow them an extra half-hour lie in! At present, 5800 night flights are allowed per year. A new Heathrow runway will expose 300,000 new people to noise, even though some existing sufferers would have quieter skies. Circa 760,000 people already live under the flight path.

Hard choices

When the Airports Commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies recommended, in its 2015 report, a third west of London runway, it suggested that an acceptable noise envelope be agreed. Heathrow would be legally-bound by this and an increased noise levy overseen by an independent committee should benefit local communities. An additional £700 million would be earmarked for local noise insulation and there would also be legal commitments to encourage new low-fuel consumption, low-carbon, low-noise technologies. In fairness, each successive generation of aircraft is quieter than the last. The Airbus A380 landing at a low speed allows normal conversations to take place on the ground at near ordinary voice levels.

In its deliberations, the commission also considered the alternatives of an extended second runway at Heathrow, or a second new runway at Gatwick. However, it put options at other south east airports such as Northolt, Stanstead, Luton or Manston in Kent on hold.

What is proposed

Heathrow’s advantage is that it is already a hub better placed to provide the long-haul capacity needed to new destinations.

If Heathrow does ever go ahead, it will involve construction of a new 3500 metre-long runway some two miles north of the two existing runways at a presently estimated cost of £17.6 billion. The Government hopes that the planning process, including judicial review, will be over by 2020. Construction would take four years with an optimistic opening date of 2025.

Heathrow handled 73.4 million people in 2014, of which more than a third transferred to other flights, making it a hub airport. It already operates at 98% capacity. The total number of annual flights would rise from 480,000 to 740,000. At peak, some quarter of a million passengers go through Heathrow in a single day; the airport is used by 80 airlines to reach 185 destinations in 84 countries.

While private sector funding will cover runway infrastructure costs, the Government is still moot on to what extent taxpayers will pay for additional road and other ground transport routes. Heathrow says taxpayers will pay £1.2 billion for surface infrastructure that is deemed to benefit the wider travelling public, as opposed to only airport users. The Airports Commission sets this figure at £5 billion and Transport for London estimates the taxpayer will end up paying £15 billion. However, the airport will have to pass on construction costs to the airlines which will have to reflect it in their prices — an estimated £10 per person per flight.

Expansion at Gatwick would be quicker and cost £9.3 billion to build a 3000 metre-runway far enough from the existing runway for independent operation. Gatwick is the world’s busiest single-runway airport. However, only 5% of its passengers transfer to other flights. In 2015, 38.7 million people and 45 airlines used Gatwick to reach 200 destinations in 90 countries.

High road to Scotland

The Scottish Government has backed a third runway at Heathrow, citing 16,000 new Scottish jobs and some £200 million support infrastructure spending north of the border. Glasgow Prestwick Airport would also be investigated for its potential as a logistics hub for the third runway. In addition, the Scottish Government hopes to attract more long-haul flights to Scotland; many passengers want onward connections to London.

Meanwhile, the Heathrow plan offers a crumb of comfort for conservationists in the form of a wildlife haven four times the size of Hyde Park.

First-ever aviation CO2 deal signed

It is worth mentioning at this point that, after two decades of hard negotiations and trade-offs, the first ever aviation sector carbon dioxide (CO2) deal has just been signed in Montreal by country representatives of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Historic though this is, in a broad context the agreement is disappointing. Yet, it must be seen optimistically as a direction of future travel.

The sector releases a volume of CO2 roughly equivalent to the whole of Germany. However, this is set to grow and will account for approximately 25% of the planet’s emissions by 2050 without strong action.

ICAO previously promised to make air travel growth carbon neutral during the 2020s to help limit global warming to less than 2°C. In the event, the new deal was watered down at the last minute and replaced by a compromise. Until 2020, CO2 emissions will be allowed to grow with no offsets needed. From 2020 onwards, any CO2 increases from airliners must be offset by carbon sink programmes such as tree planting. Even then, the scheme will be voluntary until 2026.

Bill Hemmings of the green group T&E commented that “taking a plane is the fastest and cheapest way to fry the planet” and the deal won’t reduce global demand for jet fuel.

Tim Johnson from the Aviation Environment Federation added that, “… the UK’s ambition for aviation emissions must match the ambition of the (UK’s) Climate Change Act and not simply the ICAO ‘global lowest common denominator’ of carbon neutral growth from 2020”.

Existing UK legislation obliges the Government to cut CO2 levels by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. Aviation currently accounts for some 6%. To meet legal targets, aviation emissions would have to fall below 2005 levels and stay there. The CCC says this is achievable with improved aviation fuels, greater operational efficiency and the development of long-heralded green biofuels. It wants to see a Government strategy policy framework for aviation fuels that can meet this goal pragmatically. According to the CCC, this would require limiting the growth of future air travel demand by 60% above 2005 levels by 2050, or 45% above present levels. This could mean reduced capacity at regional airports or asking other parts of industry to make even deeper carbon cuts.

Published by Croner-i on 29 November 2016



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