'Nightmare' expansion of British airports predicted

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The spectacular growth in the demand for air travel is far out-stripping government forecasts and could lead to a "nightmare" expansion at Britain's biggest airports and the acceleration of global warming, according to analysis of official figures.

The increase in passenger flights is more than 50 per cent higher than predicted in the 2003 government White Paper, data from the Civil Aviation Authority reveals.

Under present government policies of predicting growth in demand and then providing the capacity, Stansted would expand from the present one runaway to four, Local Government Association researchers argue. The White Paper provides for one additional runway at the Essex airport, but fails to put a cap on any further expansion.

Heathrow's planned third "short haul" runaway would have to be extended to take intercontinental flights and Gatwick's capacity would double to two runways.

However there would have to be expansion at all major airports to meet demand in 2030 if present trends continue, according to the report from the association's Strategic Aviation Special Interest Group (SASIG). The group, which represents 60 local authorities near airports, argues that one way to meet the rising number of flights would be to resurrect the idea of a major new airport away from centres of population. The only logical site might be the Thames Estuary - an option rejected by the White Paper.

Richard Worrall, chairman of SASIG, said the official document was "in tatters" because demand had "significantly" exceeded predictions. While the Government was about to publish a review of progress measured against the White Paper, it should be "rewritten from scratch".

He added: "It is now time for those politicians who claim to have so-called green credentials to either put up or shut up.

"We accept that the UK economy and its people have much to gain from a successful aviation industry. But there is universal recognition that the aviation industry is one of the fastest growing contributors to global warming."

In the absence of an "international catastrophe" every five years or so, Britain would run out of runways in 15 years, he said.

Growth had been ahead of government predictions for six of the past eight years. Only 9/11 and its aftermath stalled the rate of increase. Ministers had forecast a 4.6 per cent annual rise in demand, but over the past three years it had increased by around 7 per cent. If the average growth rate since 1998 continued, the White Paper estimate of 500 million passengers a year would be reached by 2021 not 2030.

Some 780 million passengers a year could be passing through British airports in 2030 - rather than the document's upper estimate of 600 million. Every year after 2030 there could be an extra 15 to 25 million passengers seeking to pass through UK airports, the research predicts.

A Department for Transport spokesman denied the White Paper supported unconstrained growth. "It supports making better use of existing capacity as a priority and targeted infrastructure enhancements over the long term." He said the Government did not agree with the group's forecasts of future demand. "If they were to be true, it would only serve to underline the extent to which our policy is not about providing for unlimited growth."