Leading article: Snow does not justify a third runway


The arrival of the winter's first serious snow across much of the country had the usual consequences. Gridlock on major arteries; closed, or seriously disrupted, airports, and a public outcry about the lack of preparation. As always, any difficulties tend to be seen through a metropolitan lens. London buses taken off the roads are treated as disaster, while cancellations at Heathrow are cited as symptoms of a peculiarly British malaise. As they were again yesterday.

Looking through the same metropolitan lens, we should say, for fairness's sake, that the capital managed to keep the traffic and public transport moving. This was an improvement on last year – helped, no doubt, by Sunday morning traffic being relatively light and the healthy state of local authority salt stocks. Not least, though, the weather forecast was heeded and turned out to be correct.

But still many Heathrow flights were pre-emptively cancelled, with others diverted elsewhere, inconveniencing thousands of travellers. Gatwick coped better – which gave advocates of expansion at Heathrow an opportunity to resurrect their calls for a third runway. That Heathrow works so close to capacity means that it will inevitably come under particular pressure in bad weather. The answer, though, is not a third runway, but that it must bring its response up to top international standards.

To give it credit, progress seems to have been made. But it must also be recognised that Heathrow's geographical situation makes it prone to fog and snow – probably more so than other London airports – and that there will be times when every airport, however well prepared and advanced its technology, will be defeated by adverse weather. There is certainly room for more improvement at Heathrow, but it is unreasonable to expect perfection, and another runway – as weather-dependent as the other two – would solve nothing.