Monday, January 19, 2009

Heathrow's third runway is throwing good money after bad

Perhaps the most annoying thing for me, in respect to the planned third runway at Heathrow, is the way that the decision about whether to have it or not has been boiled down to a question of environmentalism.

I'm as environmentally concerned as anyone - although my concerns are about real, immediate and local environmental issues not half-baked computer led fantasises - but when it comes to Heathrow's third runway my arguments against are not based on on environmental issues, but on common sense.

There is no getting away from the fact that Heathrow is in the wrong place for a major international airport. The flight path for aircraft taking off and landing take them directly over a major city in one direction and a mass of conurbations in the other. The miracle of flight 1549 is not so much that they all survived, but that the plane was able to find somewhere to "land" that wasn't densely populated. That owes much to the fact that La Guardia is surrounded by large expanses of water - Heathrow is not.

Had the same situation occurred at Heathrow, the plane would almost certainly have come down on a densely populated area leading to the probable loss of life for all on board and dozens - maybe even hundreds - on the ground.

The area surrounding Heathrow is also a heavily congested traffic area. The roads into Heathrow - including three major motorways - are frequently clogged up with traffic and adding more flights to and from that airport will only exacerbate that. Short of tearing up hundreds of villages and building hundreds of new major road arteries to the west of London, nothing will alleviate that - certainly not new or improved rail links.

And with the airspace around London set to get even busier - particularly the four holding areas - the likelihood of a mid-air collision is only going to increase. Much has been said about Heathrow running at 99% capacity, but if you own an airport you want it to run at capacity. Adding a third runway is not intended to reduce that - the airport owners will still want it running at 99% capacity or more - it is simply intended to increase capacity. Heathrow with a third runway will still be beset by delays and missed connections.

But the real problem for me is that in 20 or 30 years time Heathrow will still be in the wrong place for a major international hub airport. You can expand Heathrow all you like, but nothing will ever change that. This is why this option is not a solution - just putting off the inevitable. The inevitable being that they will, eventually, have to bite the bullet and build a new airport somewhere else. By building a third runway they may delay this for a short time, but it is just throwing good money after bad.

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