Not Expanding Heathrow Would Be Crazy, and Here's Why

Ideally, London would not have to build a brand new $78 billion island in the Thames called "Boris."

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Jul 6 2015, 3:05pm

Photo via Wikimedia

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I remember when the Icelandic volcano with the impossible name erupted, because it was a time of unnatural silence. I lived in Windsor then, a few miles from the end of Heathrow's runways, and life as the Queen's neighbor was punctuated by the sounds of various jet engines roughly every 90 seconds. Some quiet, almost apologetic; others loud enough to shake the dust from the curtains.

At night, great chains of stars lined the sky, gliding overhead one-by-one, and resolving into majestic silhouettes of Boeings and Airbuses. You get used to it, but the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, and the gigatons of ash spewed into the sky by the angry mountain, put a stop to air travel for a day or two. Windsor fell into an eerie quiet. Not peaceful, just weird. I live in Maidenhead now, alongside Theresa May—a nosy neighbor who takes far too much interest in my internet porn habits. For Maidonians, the noise Heathrow produces is up there with a gnat's fart. On the flip side, we—and the high tech businesses that swarm along the Thames Valley—get brilliant access to flights. Thanks to Heathrow's superb rail and road links, I can leave my desk at work, clear security, and be sitting in departures in about half an hour.

Let's leave aside the argument about whether London needs more airport capacity. People against it would rightly point to the impact of air travel on CO2 emissions, question our addiction to cheap flights over trains, and the Med over Skegness, and remind us of the emergence of things like Skype and video-conferencing as an alternative to travel. Business types and frequent fliers would ask if you've ever actually tried relying on Skype for anything important, and point out that most of the important communication on a business trip happens after the meeting when everyone goes to the nearest bar.

Cities exist in the first place because physical proximity matters—when you put clever people close together, big things happen. The internet helps a bit, but it's still no substitute for geography, as anyone pursuing a media career in Penzance will tell you. In any case it doesn't matter, because that argument's over. The question isn't whether to add more capacity; it's where to put it. The task of answering that question was given to the Airports Commission, who reported back to the government last week. They found that there's really only one sane, rational solution. Naturally it's the one the Tories are doing their best to not choose.

Here are the choices: London already has a ludicrous number of airports—London City, Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted, Luton, and Southend. You can expand one of those, or if you're feeling really crazy you could propose building yet another airport from scratch, on a massive £50 billion [$78 billion] island in the Thames, and calling it something like, oh, I don't know, "Boris." So let's go back to the realms of reality. You can't expand London City because it's surrounded by, well, city. Southend is a small airstrip in the middle of nowhere (also known as Essex). Luton is being upgraded but is tiny, as is Stansted, which doesn't need a new runway to grow (Gatwick also has a single runway, but twice the passengers of Stansted). That leaves Gatwick and Heathrow. Heathrow handles more passengers than the other five airports combined, exchanging traffic with every continent, and is the third busiest airport in the world. Gatwick serves half the passengers and only really covers Europe and the Caribbean. That's important, because Heathrow is a gateway not just for London but for the whole of the UK.

It's the hub through which airports in Liverpool, Belfast, Bristol, Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh, and so on can connect themselves to the wider international network. More capacity at Heathrow means better connections between, say, Scotland and China. More capacity at Gatwick means more budget flights to Barbados. Heathrow is far better connected, whereas Gatwick is buried beneath London in the middle of the stockbroker belt, a land of sporadic train lines and windy A-roads. It has the M23 nearby, and a train line to Victoria, but that's about it. Heathrow is on the M4, M25, and the Piccadilly Line, has a high speed service out of Paddington, will be connected to Crossrail when it opens, and is set to have a link to HS2 via Old Oak Common. So people from the Midlands will be able to get to Heathrow and check in over a couple of hours, whereas to find Gatwick they'll have to spend a weekend poring over Ordnance Survey maps of fields in Sussex.

Even the environmental concerns are pretty well sorted. Far from adding more noise, the extra capacity at Heathrow would mean flights didn't have to run so late into the night or early in the morning, reducing noise pollution at its most irritating times. In fact, with improvements in flight control systems allowing steeper ascents and descents, noise is forecasted to decrease over the coming decades even with an extra runway. Similarly air pollution can be improved considerably by plans to switch the airport's fleet of ground vehicles to new energy sources, while introducing a London-style congestion charge to curb traffic.

As for the land itself, it's a patch of scrubland south of Hayes—we're not talking about Dartmoor National Park here. It's shit if you happen to live there, but the same is true of anything, anywhere. And this isn't a large number of homes at stake. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and all that.

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