London's Heathrow Airport has been described by the Town and Country Planning Association as "one of the country's truly great planning disasters". Certainly, no one today would build a major airport in one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. The passenger experience is as a result dire, but just as serious is the impact of noise, pollution and sleep deprivation on the millions who live and work under the airport's flight path. Nor can safety be ignored. One day a plane preparing to land will crash on central London, an entirely predictable event.
The hell that is Heathrow is not the fault of its former lackadaisical BAA management, still less BAA's new Spanish owner, Ferrovial, or even its notoriously militant unions. Its problems are due to the failure of successive governments. A regulatory regime which has incentivised BAA, a monopoly operator, to concentrate on retail profits rather than running an efficient business has helped turn London's premier airport into a squalid, delay-ridden hole.
Heathrow recently came 56th out of 58 for customer satisfaction in a survey of international airports based on a sample of passengers conducted by Airports Council International. This reputation matters because aviation is vital to the British economy generating over £13bn in revenues per year.
The Competition Commission is now belatedly investigating the issue of whether BAA's monopoly over London's airports should be broken up. The joint ownership of Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick has never made economic sense. But monopoly is not the crucial issue. Heathrow is simply not fit to be a 21st-century international airport.
Sixty years after it began operating from an army surplus tent, it has become the world's busiest international airport, handling 70 million passengers a year, 50 per cent more than its designed capacity. Ministers are now expressing dismay, but the fact that Heathrow is grossly over-congested in peak periods should be no surprise. For the past 25 years, it has been obvious that it would be unable to cope with accelerating demand for air travel, still less perform as a key European hub, with a third of its incoming passengers transferring to other flights.
Compared to its continental rivals such as Amsterdam's Schiphol or Paris's Charles de Gaulle, which each have four modern runways and room for further expansion, Heathrow is constrained by its geography and is ill-equipped to deal with today's traffic, let alone cope with a predicted trebling of air journeys over the next 30 years.
The government's solution, a third runway to be squeezed into an already chaotically constrained site sometime after 2015, is another temporary fix. Heathrow's champions, notably BA which has a vested interest in the status quo because of its lucrative stranglehold on landing slots, insist that all will be well once an additional runway is in operation.
But we have been here before. The four-year planning inquiry into Terminal Five was given a categorical assurance by BAA that it would not pursue further expansion of Heathrow. The inquiry's inspector, Roy Vandermeer, referred to this in his final report six years ago, when he noted that a third runway would have "such severe and widespread impact on the environment as to be totally unacceptable".
Aviation policy has been punctuated by prevarication, lies and broken promises, so it was predictable that the government would renege on its commitment to restrict flights as a condition of its approval of the new terminal. Thirty years ago, Heathrow's Terminal Four was approved on the express condition that this would be the last expansion of the airport. Whatever promises are now made, it is certain that the third runway will not be the end of Heathrow's expansion. A sixth terminal and a fourth runway are just over the political horizon.
There is not much point in crying over past mistakes. The issue now is how we plan for the future. The time for patch and mend, the government's preferred option, is over. Expanding Heathrow may appear to be a cheap choice, but if, as seems likely, it provokes public protests and breaches EU pollution rules, this will cause further delay. BAA has already run into a storm of criticism for seeking an injuction to ban a mass demonstration against climate change near the airport planned for next week (14 August). But this is only a foretaste of the mass protests that are likely to follow.
There are other options. A study for Transport 2000 points out that linking Heathrow with a north-south high-speed rail line could cope with the demand that would be met by a third runway. With journey times of 40 minutes to the centre of Birmingham, 85 minutes to Manchester, and less than three hours to Edinburgh and Glasgow, high-speed rail is an attractive option compared to the queues and delays of short-haul air travel.
On medium length journeys, such as Paris-London or Tokyo-Osaka, modern railways are a formidable competitor to airlines. The construction costs would be high, perhaps £30bn, but the provision of a third runway, with all the transport developments that would be necessary, would be not much cheaper, and would provide far fewer benefits. A study carried out for the Strategic Rail Authority by Atkins, Ernest and Young in 2004 said that there was a strong business case for a new north-south high-speed, line which connected to Heathrow. The assessed business-cost ratio, it noted, would be positive, a return of more than 2:1.
A high-speed rail link could buy time for Heathrow, but the long-term solution must be its replacement by a new international airport. By 2030, a new four-to-six runway airport in the south-east will be required if this country is to remain competitive. Our European competitors, France, Germany and Italy, long ago resolved the problem of congested city-centre airports by building new international hubs further out from their capitals.
With modern developments in rapid transit, a new 24-hour airport sited along the Thames estuary with 20-minute connections to the centre of London is practical. Modern high-speed rail links, such as Maglev, make distance from the city centre irrelevant. Heathrow should be pensioned off and its land devoted to much needed low-cost housing for London.
Objectors will, no doubt, complain that this new international airport would disturb wild life. Yes, it would. But that is the price we will have to pay if we want to meet the increasing demand for air travel. And there is, at least, the consolation that sea birds find new nesting sites more easily than humans.
The writer is Associate Editor of Transport Times