London airports waiting to be cleared for take-off

There is widespread agreement that London needs more flight capacity, but little consensus on the options. Mark Leftly and Lucy Tobin report

The row over airports expansion in the South-east has produced very little that is tangible, bar the invention of a rather marvellous word to describe Boris Johnson: "bonkeramus".

Mocking the London Mayor's predilection for making up words on the spot, the Stop Stansted Expansion campaign coined the term to show just how unimpressed they were with his belief that the Essex airport could be replaced by a massive four-runway hub.

The campaign's economic adviser, Brian Ross, says Johnson's expertise in Latin should mean he is well aware that the phrase means "a bonkers idea put forward by an ignoramus". For good measure, Ross added that Johnson should stick to running buses and bicycles.

Whether it's a crazy idea or not, Johnson has manoeuvred himself squarely into the centre of the debate, primarily pushing for his preferred plan for a floating hub in the Thames Estuary waters. What he is truly opposed to is a third runway at Heathrow, even though business leaders and major airlines want extra capacity to ensure that the west London site remains one of the world's foremost airports.

Prime Minister David Cameron has played a blinder politically by ordering both a Department for Transport consultation and an inquiry, headed by former Audit Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies, into the issue. That ensures that there will be no answer this side of a general election, which means that Cameron won't lose votes in Conservative heartlands where residents don't want any more noisy aircraft flying low over their houses.

However, this hasn't stopped more and more options being announced by their zealous supporters, the most realistic of which are illustrated above. There are others, such as expanding Birmingham airport and transferring short-haul flights from Heathrow to RAF Northolt in Middlesex.

On Wednesday, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, spoke of the "catastrophic situation" for the British economy. He argued that London and the South-east can't wait the 20 or more years it would take to build a new airport and needs to focus on the most expedient option, which he believes is a third Heathrow runway.

If nothing is done, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted will be at capacity by 2030. A report by a think-tank, the Policy Exchange, says that the capital desperately needs a four-runway hub if it wants to compete with European rivals in Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

This notion of a "hub" is key. It's the passengers who transfer at Heathrow that brings in so much money and Dubai, which is in such close reach of six time zones, is threatening to overtake it as the world's busiest international airport.

Tony Douglas, the former chief executive of Heathrow who today is overseeing the $7.2bn (£4.5bn) Khalifa Port complex in Abu Dhabi, says that most of the interested parties are looking at the issue from the wrong angle.

"If you really wanted to, you could build a platform on stilts over London and land aeroplanes there," he chuckles, arguing that the point is that there first needs to be agreement over why an airport is required and what the actual needs of the economy are. Only then can the options be properly assessed.

However, The Independent on Sunday has taken a stab at evaluating the possibilities of five of the most promising options ever being built. The judgement suggests that Boris Island probably isn't a flyer, while expansion at Gatwick and Stansted is likely, but far from a solution.

The secretive nature of the work being undertaken by a business consortium, now known to include British Airways and BAA veterans, to build a new four-runway hub in Oxfordshire means that it remains the wildcard.

However, given the short-term needs of the economy, an awful lot of evidence points to a third runway at Heathrow one day being approved.

 

Stansted, Essex

As it stands

BAA is selling the low-cost airlines’ favourite airport

Plan

A £3bn Crossrail link, which could help facilitate two extra runways, or Johnson’s idea for a replacement four-runway hub

Pros

Political support

New owners will endorse more runways 

Plenty of room for expansion

Cons

Without Crossrail, Stansted has the poorest rail connections of the options

Cost for four runways has been estimated at £80bn

BA and others will object to moving operations so far east

Out of the hangar: 4/5

 

Thames Estuary

As it stands

Some form of ‘Boris Island’ has been mooted since the 1970s

Plan

There are two: Lord Foster’s four-runway idea and Johnson’s superhub near Whitstable

Pros

Huge economic benefits for a region relatively untouched by the benefits of aviation

Scope for flights to run through the night

High speed link would mean a 20-minute journey into London

Cons

Unclear where the £40bn funding would come from

Aircraft would run into London’s other airports’ flightpaths

Big business doesn’t want to relocate from west London

Out of the hangar: 1/5

 

Gatwick

As it stands

Britain’s second busiest airport

Plan

A second runway that could double capacity from 34m passengers-a-year to 70m

Pros

Much cheaper than building an entire new airport

Would allow more spare time to be built into take-off and landing schedules, so avoiding airport closures

Jobs: Gatwick generates about 23,000 airport jobs and 13,000 through related activities

Cons

Would still only be a point-to-point rather than hub airport 

Surrey, Sussex and west Kent residents will campaign against

A long-standing agreement means work can’t commence until 2019

Out of the hangar: 3/5

 

Oxfordshire

As it stands

BAA and BA veterans are working on plans for a £60bn four-runway hub 

Plan

Initially would complement Heathrow but eventually replace it

Pros

Would be 30 minutes to London by high speed rail

Has already attracted interest from potential Chinese backers

Brief claims it would avoid flight path over built-up areas

Cons

Backers yet to be revealed

Depends on High Speed Two

Would provoke countryside campaigners

Out of the hangar: 2/5

 

Heathrow

As it stands

The world’s biggest international airport and third biggest by total passenger numbers 

Plan

A third runway would focus solely on short-haul flights

Pros

BAA would easily get the £10bn funding in place

Would appease large FTSE companies that have businesses close to Heathrow

Economic benefits to UK of £30bn, according to the CBI

Cons

Political opposition is huge – and residents are in key Conservative constituencies

No room for a fourth runway, which will be vital as other hubs continue to grow

Academic claims extra runway would treble pollution deaths

Out of the hangar: 4/5

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