Most of the hotel has been taken over by the two opposing camps. In the rich, powerful corner is the British Airports Authority with their pounds 50m budget and huge staff which stays at the hotel all week, preparing briefs and rebutting all opponents. In the poor but valiant corner is a consortium of surrounding local authorities, who have now just pulled out, having spent too many millions already, leaving Friends of the Earth and local protesters as the chief challengers.
The enquiry isn't expected to end until next August, and then it will take the Inspector another year to write his report, each side accusing the other of dragging out the proceedings. But very few observers doubt the inevitable outcome. Terminal 5 (T5) will be built and finished by 2004. Designed by Richard Rogers, the 625-acre glass building with a vaulted tented roof will take in thirty million extra passengers a year.
Why is it bound to be built? Because there is no alternative. Already Heathrow is crammed beyond capacity, with six million more passengers than it has room for. The strain is showing. Passengers are getting angry, complaints are rising fast, baggage handling can't cope, bags are being lost in transit and planes are queuing up on the tarmac because all the stands for loading and unloading people and bags are full. Air travel is rising by four per cent a year and T5 is needed urgently, as well as Gatwick, Luton, and Stansted running at capacity - and another new runway in the South-east sometime soon.
Most of the extra demand each year is for holidays. Never before have so many British people travelled abroad so much. What used to be exclusively a rich man's pleasure is now available to all but the poor: weddings on a beach in the Seychelles, families flying to Florida, winter breaks in Tenerife. Having just spent the week in dismal, blighted Blackpool, I have no doubt at all that cheap air travel has hugely improved the pleasure people get from their hard-earned holidays.
Despite being an offshore outpost, London is the biggest airport in Europe, and the main port of entry to Europe from the rest of the world. Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt are bidding to overtake us. All have plenty of spare capacity, eager to take over any extra business if Britain lets slip. British Airways gets pounds 1bn worth of transfer traffic alone through London. BA are saying that if they don't get more capacity in London soon, they'll move their hub to some other European capital. The City fears the knock- on effect to their global finance industry if London no longer remains the key entry airport to Europe. All those are the good reasons why the decision to build T5 is inevitable. What else can the Inspector seriously propose - short of a green revolution?
Friends of the Earth raise local environmental issues. T5 will be largest ever structure built on green belt land. The Perry Oaks site is a wetland that is one of London's best for wildfowl and wading birds. As ever, there has been a last minute discovery of a rare species, this time something called a Water Aven (a plant). Perry Oaks sounds like a rural paradise. In fact this rare `wetland' is a Thames Water sewage and sludge plant within the perimeter fence of Heathrow, hardly an idyllic picnic spot.
The more serious challenge has been from local residents, the 300,000 dwellings deafened within the `noise footprint' of the airport and others in the flight path. This knock-down-drag-out enquiry has at least forced major concessions out of BAA that didn't appear in their original plans. They now guarantee there will be no greater noise, that there will be no further car parks, and, most important of all, that they will spend pounds 500m on three new rapid rail links to cut down car use. All that is little consolation to the wretched sufferers who live nearby. Yet, however much we pity local residents, it is unlikely that we or the government will pity them sufficiently to stop the T5 development. We all want to fly.
But then, we also want to breathe - and by any standards, an airport is an environmental calamity. More than eighty million passengers will fly in and out of it, with 100,000 daily car journeys, guzzling and spewing out vast quantities of fuel. High altitude flying damages the ozone layer, while fossil-fuel burning emits carbon dioxide, which is rapidly overheating the climate. Yet the demand for more and more air travel is never-ending and no government looks likely to cap it.
World energy consumption has increased by more than a third in 20 years and tourism is now the third biggest world industry. Air travel accounts for one sixth of fuel used for transport. Global warming is here: few dispute it now, with natural habitats shifting 80 kms north per decade. To halt it, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say the world needs to reduce carbon emissions by 60 to 80 per cent.
Britain has promised a reduction of 20 per cent by 2010 - and the UK only contributes 3 per cent to global carbon emissions. Since air travel is only a small part of that, why worry about a bigger airport? Well, one person's round trip from London to Florida uses up around half the total annual carbon emission allowance for each person for all purposes, according to the IPCC recommendations, if the world is to survive.
Strangely, air travel is not counted into each country's inventory of green house gas emissions, as no-one could decide how to apportion it. America refuses to reduce any emissions at all, though every American consumes double the energy of every Briton, ten times each Chinese and thirty times each Indian. In the face of that, it's tempting to despair. Why should we worry about T5, why should any country worry about a bit more here and there, while the Americans guzzle on regardless?
But some day soon we will have to ration energy use, in planes and cars. There will come a time when suddenly the world is frightened by disasters into allowing politicians to do what must be done. Will we find a socially acceptable way to ration energy, or will the rich take it all?
Here is one scheme some environmentalists have put forward. If as a nation we set a limit to the total number of air miles flown, or indeed to the number of car miles driven, we could issue a ration to every citizen. Those who did not want to use their driving or flying ration could sell their quota on the open market. The rich would scramble to buy, the poor to sell if they wanted to, if the price was enticing enough. Rations would become very valuable and it would lead to a healthy redistribution of wealth that had nothing to do with taxation. (Think what this principle could do for redistributing wealth between rich and poor nations, too.)
Nothing so bold is even remotely on the agenda yet - perhaps not until America starts to choke and suffocate. Will it be too late by then to save ourselves? In the meantime, happy flying.Reuse content