Peer urges rethink on Heathrow's Terminal 5

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Lord Desai, the Labour peer, has called on the Government to "mothball" plans for Heathrow airport's fifth terminal after the disclosure in The Independentthat ministers planned to approve it while the military strikes on Afghanistan were dominating headlines.

In line with environmentalists and campaign groups, Professor Meghnad Desai, director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, said yesterday that plans for the terminal should be put on hold because of the damage done to the aviation industry by the atrocities in the United States.

His comments will add to the controversy already surrounding Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, and his special adviser Jo Moore, who was forced to apologise last week over a memo she issued on 11 September which said the terror attacks presented an opportunity for the Government to "bury" bad news.

Sources at the Department of Transport have told The Independent that an announcement on Terminal 5, which was due to be made next month, was being brought forward to coincide with the launch of a land attack on Afghanistan, but Lord Desai said caution should be exercised.

"There is about to be a huge restructuring of the aviation industry and it would make good sense to see how that will turn out before going further," he said. "What I believe will change forever is business travel. At the moment, the business sector is not flying and is working in different ways.

"When they realise how much money they are saving using modern telecommunications and conferencing systems, many won't go back on aeroplanes. What we will see instead is a different kind of aviation industry built on cheaper prices and bulk leisure flights."

Last month, transatlantic traffic suffered a 25.9 per cent drop on the month before. BA closed its routes to Belfast and axed more than 7,000 staff while, across Europe, Swissair and Sabena needed government handouts to survive and other airlines were on the brink of collapse.

In spite of the gloom, however, Heathrow airport still believes T5, a structure boasting two half mile-long terminal buildings, a 600-room hotel, offices and hundreds of shops, will be badly needed.

Jon Phillips, Heathrow's director of communications, said: "We regard the current situation as a short-term scenario and believe we must still plan for the long term. Terminal 5 continues to be extremely important for Heathrow's success. It is about adding quality as well as capacity."

The terminal's supporters, which include the Confederation of British Industry and the Transport and General Workers' Union, along with its detractors, pressure groups such as the residents' group Hacan ClearSkies and Friends of the Earth, aired their views at a heated public inquiry lasting from 1995 to 1999.

Friends of the Earth pointed out that aircraft are responsible for 3.5 per cent of global warming, a figure expected to rise to 17 per cent over the next 50 years. Hacan said pollution affects the health of people living under the Heathrow flight path, while noise can impair children's ability to concentrate and learn. They argue increased passenger numbers and an extra 49,000 car journeys to the airport can only make matters worse.

Heathrow, however, disagrees. Mr Phillips said: "Terminal 5 has been designed to take the new 600-seater A380 passenger jets so with these, and as airlines trade up to larger planes at every level, we will be able to deliver extra passengers without a corresponding increase in flights."

Economically, the CBI and the London Chamber of Commerce have backed Heathrow's claim that further development is vital for Britain's economy. They argue that airports in Paris and Frankfurt are simply waiting to cash in on overcrowding in London, drawing off £600m in revenue for Britain.

Opponents, however, say that is nonsense. John Stewart, chairman of Hacan ClearSkies, says air transport accounts for only 0.7 per cent of UK gross domestic output– while airports contribute just 0.13 per cent of it.

Hacan is also concerned that the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow, predicts Terminal 5 will create 63,000 new jobs. But, locally, unemployment is running at less than 1.5 per cent, about 9,000 people, so other businesses may suffer from staff being poached to work at the airport. The airport points to polls it has undertaken that show that 60 per cent of local people support the extension.

Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, agreed with Lord Desai that time should be taken before committing to the new terminal.

"It is time to reassess our attitude to air travel," he said. "We think the future is in high-speed railways which, apart from the English section of the Eurostar route, are proving to be very successful in north-west Europe. Between 40 to 45 per cent of aircraft ... are bound for journeys of 500km or less. With decent railways, those journeys could be faster than flying.

"For decades, the international agreement that makes aviation fuel tax free and the absence of VAT on new aircraft hase amounted to huge subsidies for the airlines. They have to stop and, instead, be put into rail travel.

"We don't want to stop the aviation industry, but make it more responsible. It doesn't make sense to have thousands of half-full aircraft flying round the planet every day."