The committee comes clean about Heathrow's challenges in a way that's not familiar to watchers of UK politics. Of course, making things happen is another matter.
London’s Heathrow Airport, Europe’s busiest, should be expanded with the addition of a third and even a fourth runway, a cross-party panel of lawmakers said.
The building of a new hub airport to the east of the U.K. capital, as championed by London Mayor Boris Johnson, would not be commercially viable without “significant” taxpayer funding and should be rejected, the House of Commons Transport Committee said in a report today.
“Heathrow, the U.K.’s only hub airport, has been short of capacity for a decade and is currently operating at full capacity,” Committee Chairwoman Louise Ellman, a member of the opposition Labour Party, said in an e-mailed statement. “We conclude that a third runway at Heathrow is necessary, but also suggest that a four-runway proposal may have merit.”
U.K. airport capacity is currently being reviewed by a commission set up by Prime Minister David Cameron to put off a decision on expanding Heathrow until after the 2015 general election. Led by Howard Davies, a former chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the panel will produce an interim report later this year. Heathrow uses 99 percent of its runway capacity.
Cameron’s Conservative Party made blocking the expansion of Heathrow a key pledge in its 2010 general-election campaign in a bid to win votes in west London, under the Heathrow flight path. It promised to make Heathrow “better, not bigger,” stop the construction of a third runway and instead link the airport into Britain’s proposed high-speed rail network.
Trying to create a split-hub system by developing rail links between existing airports is unviable, the panel, which has no London lawmakers among its members, said, arguing for dedicated rail lines to be built to improve access to Gatwick Airport, south of the capital, and Stansted to the northeast. Connections to Heathrow should also be improved, it said.
The Davies commission should use its report to set a framework for future transport policy, the committee said.
“It is less than ideal that the Airports Commission is working to a protracted timetable, with a final report not to be produced until after the 2015 general election,” the lawmakers said. “We could complain that this is yet another example of important decisions on aviation being kicked into the long grass, but instead we challenge the commission to use this opportunity to, once and for all, provide a robust and independent evidence base for future decisions.”
The building of a third runway at Heathrow was proposed by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 2003, subject to environmental standards, which then Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon announced had been met in 2009. The proposal became mired in legal, political and environmental arguments and it was canceled when Cameron’s coalition government with the Liberal Democrats was formed in May 2010.
The Davies commission should consider the possibility of building two new runways to the west of Heathrow, on the other side of the M25 motorway, which would reduce aircraft noise for people under the flight path, the committee said.
The government should also review air passenger duty, the levy on passengers taking flights, and consider reducing or abolishing it if it is found to have a negative impact on the British economy, the panel said. An APD holiday could also be introduced for services operating from airports outside southeast England to shift demand away from London, it suggested.
The building of a new hub to the east of London, a proposal dubbed “Boris Island,” should be rejected because it would lead to the closing of Heathrow and have “unacceptable” consequences for people and businesses in west London, the panel said. It would also need too much public money and would have a substantial impact on wildlife in the Thames Estuary, the committee said.
The London Assembly’s Transport Committee argued in a separate report last week that Britain has enough airport capacity to cope with its needs if utilized properly and that Heathrow could serve 20 million more passengers every year without a new runway if bigger airplanes are used.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., Britain’s second-biggest long-haul carrier, said in an e-mailed statement that the Commons panel’s “report is detailed, persuasive and right to rule out once and for all half-baked suggestions,” arguing that “the U.K. needs one globally competitive hub airport for the long term.”
The premier’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, said Cameron would wait for the commission’s report before making a judgment. “The prime minister thinks that the right thing to do is allow the Davies Commission to report on the issue of airport capacity,” he said.
With assistance from Robert Hutton in London. Editors: Eddie Buckle, Chris Jasper. To contact the reporter on this story: Thomas Penny in London at [email protected]. To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at [email protected].
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Photo credit: A passenger plane flies in to land at Heathrow Airport in west London. Toby Melville / Reuters