When Boris Johnson speaks about building a £50b three-runway airport to the east of London, he assumes that the airlines currently operating through Heathrow will happily divert to his shiny new one in Kent. The question is why would they?
Heathrow works well because it is a hub for connecting flights. All Boris Johnson is proposing is extra runway space, not the guarantee of more connecting flights.
If a flight from America cannot get a connection to Russia, then they’ll carry on flying through Heathrow. If the Russian airline can’t connect to America, then they’ll continue to route through Heathrow. Without some mechanism to cause the airlines to simultaneously switch to the new airport, we’ll have a £50bn white elephant on our hands.
Can you imagine fluffy Boris Johnson scooting around the world trying to persuade 86 different airlines that they should simultaneously switch to Boris Island? I was once involved in a housing chain with 11 other buyers, and that was difficult enough, but 86 airlines with 69 million passengers a year would be a nightmare.
That’s why routes are a sticky commodity. If they were fluid, then why haven’t the airlines all switched their business to Schiphol or Frankfurt, where spare capacity exists?
76,500 people work at Heathrow and that’s just two runways. 320 companies are there. Are we going to relocate this number of people from one part of the country to another? If they refuse, will we force them to move? Has fluffy Boris thought about this?
Previously, one of the main objections to Heathrow expansion was concern of global warming. At the time, the British public were in the middle of a discussion on how to lower our carbon footprint, so the idea of more air traffic was unpopular. Since then, the argument has refined.
We now realise that expanding Heathrow doesn’t increase the number of flights, as Gatwick and Stansted currently run under capacity while Heathrow bursts at the seams. All we propose is to ease the flow of existing traffic. In fact pollution will be reduced if Heathrow has a third runway, not simply due to incoming flights no longer having to circle, but in Schiphol the runway is so far from the airport that planes have to taxi, on their jet engines, for twenty minutes to get to the terminal.
The legitimate objection to Heathrow expansion is from residents who don’t want the noise. It is legitimate, but is it a big enough objection to affect such an important infrastructure decision? It is the comparative advantage of London and the south east that we are at the geographical centre of the world. We need to build on our strengths not sideline them. Being a world’s meeting place is a gift, not a burden.
Ed Miliband is undecided on this issue. I think this is a mistake. There are just as many votes from people employed by this airport, and the economy around it, as there are votes against the expansion. The common good to the wider economy and the nation is sufficient to outweigh the legitimate concern of residents regarding the noise.
Our policy should be to favour Heathrow expansion.