Pity the passenger inbound to Heathrow or Gatwick, and the residents living some thousands of feet below the circling aircraft. The world’s busiest two-runway and single-runway airports are, in a sense, the most efficient aviation assets in the world. They set out to handle implausible amounts of traffic, and most of the time just about get away with it – with travellers and householders growing accustomed to the time-devouring, noise-intensifying delays to landing and take off.
Who’d choose to use such overstretched resources? Well, millions of passengers every week.
London has become the world capital of aviation, on target to handle 150 million arriving and departing travellers this year, despite itself. Stansted, Luton and plucky Southend are soaking up some of the excess demand that Heathrow and Gatwick can’t accommodate, with London City carving out a niche for time-sensitive business travellers.
Yet a decade from now, London and the rest of the nation may have something approaching sensible infrastructure. We wait 70 years for another full-length runway in south-east England to get the go-ahead, and then two come along at once — or at least they might if the Government gives the green light to Heathrow.
The prevarication that has characterised airport planning for decades may finally end this week or next. As The Independent revealed on Sunday, Gatwick bosses believe the airport’s growth trajectory demands another runway regardless of the Transport Secretary’s announcement, which is expected as early as Tuesday.
For the past 15 months, Heathrow has been hoping that the Davies Commission recommendation for a third runway will be rubber-stamped. Assuming the vote goes against Gatwick, the Sussex airport has now indicated it will flout the referee’s decision and hire the bulldozers anyway.
Gatwick’s rebellious attitude may prove to be yet another distraction to a process that has dragged on as long as Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. Or it could mean that the UK, for the first time in aviation history, becomes future-proofed – with Stansted waiting in the wings in Essex for the next round of expansion.
Patrons of the Five Bells in Harmondsworth and the Gatwick Manor Inn may feel aggrieved that their historic drinking dens are under threat from expansion at either airport. But many of the rest of us will feel relieved: householders whose property has been blighted for decades, young people whose employment prospects are uncertain, and passengers who feel they’ve been going around in circles forever, just like the great airport debate.Reuse content