When Alistair Darling said "doing nothing is not an option", few eyebrows were raised. But the MP for Edinburgh South-West was not addressing global economic turmoil as Chancellor – he was talking in 2002, as Transport Secretary, about the chronic shortage of airport capacity in South-east England.
Guess what has happened since then: nothing. Indeed, with the exception of a short strip at London City, there has been no increase in runway capacity for more than half a century, when Gatwick's present facilities opened. Despite the protestations of successive transport secretaries about the need to expand our access to the skies, London – which prides itself as being the world hub of aviation – has only five full-length runways. This is the same number as Amsterdam, which handles far less traffic.
Single runways at Gatwick, Luton and Stansted take some of the pressure off the two landing strips at Heathrow. But as demand from airlines has grown, every airport is "slot-constrained", which means stretched to the limit at certain times of day.
London's airport "system" is a haphazard muddle generated by arbitrary decision-making over the decades, often following the path of least local resistance. The pretty village of Cublington, Buckinghamshire, narrowly avoided becoming a "Super Heathrow". Maplin Sands in Essex also escaped obliteration, though the concept of an airport floating in the Thames Estuary has recently been buoyed up by the London Mayor. The present Government's preferred solution has long been extra runways at both Heathrow and Stansted. But yesterday's High Court decision will delay the former, and cash constraints at BAA make the latter look unlikely.
One reason Britain has the finest air-traffic controllers in the world is that they are trained to manage an incredibly complex system of conflicting needs. Airline strikes permitting, every day they squeeze 350,000 passengers in and out of the precious strips of concrete serving the capital – 30 per cent more than London's nearest rivals, New York, Paris and Tokyo.
Bigger planes also help. The Airbus A380 is an aircraft made for Heathrow: tomorrow, Emirates supersizes a second daily service to one of these "super-jumbo" jets. Politicians and rival airlines will note where flight EK4 is heading: Dubai, the location of the most ambitious new airport anywhere in the world.