In the world’s pre-eminent city for air travel, global aviation policy is decided by local politics. The city is London, where 130 million airline passengers arrive or depart each year – or four per second, on average.
People in south-east England enjoy unparalleled access to air travel. The other side of this valuable coin is that residents of west London collectively endure more aircraft noise than any other community worldwide. And the battle for their votes, in marginal constituencies such as Brentford & Isleworth, Hammersmith and Richmond Park & North Kingston, has kept the lid on expansion at Heathrow airport for decades.
“Doing nothing is not an option” has been the refrain of countless transport secretaries. Under the pressure of local politics, though, they have proceeded to do nothing. Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe, while Gatwick boasts the world’s busiest runway. Airport owners, airlines and air-traffic controllers successfully squeeze a quart into a pint pot almost every day of the year. But in the past week, the lack of resilience has been noisily exposed.
The misery for passengers, residents and airline accountants began at dawn last Saturday morning, when a failure at the Nats air-traffic control centre in Hampshire triggered hundreds of cancellations. Delays continued through Sunday, costing airlines an estimated £5m in lost revenue and mandatory passenger care. By Tuesday, a blanket of fog reduced the “flow rate” of arrivals and departures at Heathrow, with dozens more cancellations, and frustrating diversions.
While many other airports across Europe also experienced bad weather last week, they recovered much faster than Heathrow because they are not working close to full stretch for most of the time. Britain has much more aviation capacity than it needs. Tiresomely, though, airlines and their passengers show a clear preference for Heathrow and, to a lesser extent, Gatwick.
Shortly after 7 May 2015, Sir Howard Davies, the man responsible for solving the aviation capacity crisis, will present the incoming government with something they may regard as a poisoned chalice: his preferred solution. Or solutions – Heathrow-plus-one and Gatwick-plus-one is the most plausible “dual-hub” combination.
By then, Heathrow will be almost 70 years old, and the present incarnation of Gatwick almost 60. But the clamour of residents west of London, who find themselves in the potential line of sight for approaching pilots, could once again defeat the bid for a national consensus.
Sir Howard may not have been sleeping easily last week – not because of the rumour and counter-rumour about the shortlist of options that his Airport Commission will reveal – but because of the after-hours arrivals flying over his west London home.