“How not to decide to build a new runway”

british airways tail fin

The following article was published today by Dr Peter Paul Catterall (Reader in History, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Westminster) in the Huffington Post.  A fleeting reference to Manston, but an interesting look at “decision making”.

My American students could not believe how long it takes in Britain even to agree on the first step of creating additional runway capacity, which is deciding on where to build it. This is partly an indictment of the long-range planning failures of the UK. Not only is there a backwards-looking cultural obsession with the Second World War, but so much British infrastructure continues to date from then, not least the airfields. Turning one of these into Heathrow Airport (Heathrow) in 1946 arguably made sense at the time, but successive governments subsequently failed to plan for future demand, hence its current constrained, air-polluting position in a West London that has expanded to surround it.

Heathrow has nonetheless been a remarkable success despite its capacity constraints and has long been a major international hub. Retaining such a hub – albeit not necessarily at Heathrow – has therefore been a repeated concern for British governments looking at how to expand runway capacity. This is not least in light of the rise of international competitor airports at Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles de Gaulle or Frankfurt Airport, each of which has considerably more runway capacity than Heathrow. Governments have, however, been remarkably unsuccessful at working out how to provide commensurate additional runway capacity in Britain.

This is despite successive attempts dating back to the 1960s in which options and alternatives, from Maplin Sands to RAF Manston, were considered. For instance, the range of possibilities covered in the Tony Blair government’s The Future of Air Transport 2003 White Paper only finally resulted in a decision in 2009 when Gordon Brown went for expansion at Heathrow. David Cameron opposed this in Opposition, but then three years later as Prime Minister he set up an ‘Airports Commission’ under Sir Howard Davies. Their terms of reference, because they focused on the primacy of maintaining a major international hub airport, pointed to a decision for Heathrow expansion. That was indeed what Sir Davies recommended and Cameron’s successor duly endorsed.

My American students also noted the connection between the centralisation of decision-making and its extreme slowness in this area of policy. This is partly because centralisation politicises the decision and remits it to figures who are concerned to avoid unpopular short-term consequences. Setting up the ‘Davies Commission’ was an attempt to provide an expert-led, evidence-based solution instead – one which failed.

Centralisation has also led to a narrow focus on particular options. The past 40 years of policymaking has consisted of governments always treating a Heathrow expansion as the default option while still acknowledging the many problems and at least going through the exercise of looking at alternatives in South-East England, however as Gordon Brown and Theresa May have shown, they always seem to come back eventually to that default option. The problem is that it is likely to end up mired in litigation and cost-overruns, which is partly why they try to find alternatives in the first place. It is also a short-term fix. Sir Davies, after all, recommended legislation to make it clear that Heathrow would not be allowed to expand beyond three runways.

Furthermore, the government rejected an option for expansion, the Heathrow hub scheme to extend the northern runway that would have been cheaper, quicker and less environmentally-costly to deliver. They were presumably won over by lobbying from Heathrow and its Spanish owners, for whom the real prize is an additional terminal and the revenue that this will bring. This is, like May’s talks with Nissan, a deal made with one view – the benefits for a single, private company. In both cases, the key factor seems to have been the political imperative to show ‘Britain is open for business’, rather than the wider needs of the economy.

In the process, opportunities for a more radical re-think of airports policy were overlooked or ignored. Heathrow claims it is a vital business and freight hub for the UK, disparaging Gatwick as a point-to-point, holiday-based airport. If so, why are there still so many holiday flights at Heathrow clogging up capacity?

All this ignores the question of whether a hub airport could be developed elsewhere. After all, why does it have to be Heathrow? If it did not already exist no-one in their right minds would choose Heathrow as the site for a major international airport if they were starting from scratch now. The answer usually given is branding, but perceptions can change and a new hub could no doubt develop its own identity if given the chance.

This would not have to be a ‘Boris Island’, though that would at least show ambition. Indeed, if the government did not control the decision-making on airports so rigidly, it could be anywhere. There is an irony that this government, led by a party which used to be supposedly free-market, is in practice so dirigiste. That dirigisme both helps to explain why it has taken so long to make this decision and why, when eventually made, it was principally driven by such narrow calculations of benefits. It is a classic example of path-dependency, where centralised decision-making was always likely to favour Heathrow, despite the difficulties, because Heathrow was already the market-leading hub and the default option was to make it even bigger. The decision was therefore always predictable, despite the years searching for alternatives.

I can only agree with my students that this is also an object lesson in how not to do decision-making.

The article can be read in full at Huffington Post.

Featured image © Kate Jewell and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

Does the UK need a mega-hub airport?

An interesting article has been published in International Airport Review regarding new hub airports, and it lends special attention to Manston Airport.  Definitely worth a read.


While this airport struggled to attract passenger services when open, it was very popular with freight airlines, having a 9,000 ft runway and not much infrastructure around the area to cause inconvenience to. Also, Manston played a heroic role during the Battle of Britain in 1940 making it a site worth preserving for posterity. Given its lack of development the airport provided an open canvas for the creation of a new airport fully meeting its users expectations, and with a main railway line passing close to the eastern end of the runway, building a station and providing fast service to St Pancras in a little over an hour was a ‘no brainer.’ Tellingly, this project could have been brought to fruition for a fraction of the cost of the third runway at Heathrow, but sadly, Manston was not even considered by the Airports Commission as a possible option.

The article can be read in full here.

“After half a century, Government decides to expand Heathrow”

From Forbes:

The UK government has finally made its decision. There is to be a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, together with new terminals, an extended business park, and substantial upgrade of road and rail links to the airport.

Expansion of London’s airport capacity has been a political hot potato for half a century. There have been numerous proposals both for expanding existing airports and building completely new ones, in various locations all around London. Every plan has come in for criticism and, often, outright opposition from local authorities and environmental lobbyists: some plans have also been opposed by business interests. Until now, no government has been willing to approve any of them.

Sadly, the few places that would have welcomed airport expansion, such as Manston in Kent, were felt to be unsuitable. Despite significant local opposition, Manston has now been closed and the site is scheduled for redevelopment. A public inquiry is to be held into its future.

The announcement of Heathrow’s expansion has been received with considerable relief by business representatives. The President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Paul Dreschler, said:

“A new runway at Heathrow is really fantastic news, especially as the country has waited nearly 50 years for this decision. It will create the air links that will do so much to drive jobs and unlock growth across the UK, allowing even more of our innovative, ambitious and internationally focussed firms, from Bristol to Belfast, to take off and break into new markets.”

Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, also welcomed the decision, noting particularly that recent technological improvements address many of the environmental objections to the expansion of Heathrow. However, she warned that expansion of Heathrow needs to form part of an integrated transport strategy:

“This is so near and yet so far.  Without clear view from Government on its support for expansion at Gatwick and Birmingham airports, investors are still unable to take a long-term view on how to future-proof UK airport capacity…..

It is good that this Government is looking towards developing an integrated transport and industrial strategy.  It is vital therefore that these developments form part of this integrated approach with Crossrail and HS2.”

She has a point. Unless other UK are also expanded, the proposed HS2 high-speed railway link from London to the north of England will simply encourage people to commute from cities in the North and Midlands to London, encouraging yet more business development in London and the South East at the expense of other areas. If Heathrow is to be expanded, so too should Birmingham and/or Manchester airports.

But not everyone is happy about the expansion of Heathrow. The residents of the villages of Longford and Harmondsworth are up in arms about it. The whole of Longford and half of Harmondsworth will be bulldozed to make way for the runway.

Of course, the villagers will be offered compensation for the loss of their homes. Additionally, those living in the half of Harmondsworth that will remain are to be offered the choice of staying in their homes or selling up at 25% above market value. Residents of several other villages nearby will be offered the same deal. It is not hard to imagine what their choice would be. These seem likely to become “ghost villages” – a monument to progress, or a relic of a simpler past?

Both the present and former Mayors of London expressed their disappointment at the decision. The present Mayor, Sadiq Khan, openly preferred a second runway at Gatwick Airport to the south of London. And the previous Mayor, Boris Johnson, wanted a completely new airport in the Thames Estuary. Both are concerned about the impact on the environment and on quality of life for people living in the area round Heathrow, which is fairly densely populated.

Mr. Johnson, who is now the UK’s Foreign Secretary, has already declared the Heathrow expansion “undeliverable”, and says it is “very likely it will be stopped”. He has strong support from his Cabinet colleague Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, whose constituency is affected by the plans. Another local MP, Zac Goldsmith, resigned when the announcement was made.

It is indeed possible that the expansion will be stopped. There is to be a year’s consultation, during which time opponents will air their views in no uncertain terms. Four local authorities in the area have already indicated that they will pursue legal action to try to stop the expansion. The budget – an eyewatering £16 billion (about $18 billion) – has still to be approved.

Even if the project goes ahead, construction will not commence until 2021 at the earliest. And by then, technological improvement might have rendered such an ambitious expansion unnecessary. According to the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), innovations such as “time based separation” (TBS), which enables aircraft to land safely closer together, could considerably improve existing airport capacity:

“This technology has the potential to reduce separation between aircraft, altering today’s assumptions about airspace and runway loading, which could have huge implications on the number of airline operations able to operate from an airport or runway.”

TBS is not the only innovation on the horizon. Development of “unmanned air systems” (UAS) could enable a very different solution to the UK’s airport freight capacity problem:

“Once regulatory hurdles for the use of autonomous air vehicles are cleared, UAS developments could give logistics companies the opportunity to move freight away from central hubs to dispersed regional airfields and change how we transport goods by air.”

Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal from the IET’s Transport Policy Panel said: “The decision around additional airport capacity for London and the South East needs to take into account how new technologies will change the way we travel and transfer goods by air in the future, and not just look at the here and now.”

So although it has already spent half a century in gestation, perhaps the decision to expand Heathrow Airport is still premature. With investment in innovative technology, there could be a solution that would better meet the needs of people and businesses in other parts of the UK while allowing the residents of Harmondsworth and Longford to keep their homes. If the days of gigantic hub airports are numbered, as the IET seems to suggest, it would surely be far better for the UK to be at the forefront of developing the world’s first distributed air transport network.

From Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/francescoppola/2016/10/25/after-half-a-century-the-uk-government-decides-to-expand-heathrow-airport)

News: Millions paid for Op Stack lorry park

We can announce an investigation by KM Group paper, the Thanet Extra, has discovered that Stone Hill Park have been paid at least £3.5 million of taxpayers’ money by the Department of Transport for the planned use of Manston Airport as a lorry park during Operation Stack.

Since September 2015, payments amounting to £3.539 million were made to Stone Hill Park, care of their Discovery Park address.

To date, not a single lorry has been parked at Manston Airport, apart from those that located and then collected the portaloos.

Full details can be found on Kent Online: http://www.kentonline.co.uk/thanet/news/millions-paid-for-runway-to-114631/


Letters: Cargo for Manston

manston airport aerial

From The Telegraph:

SIR – Theresa May has very sensibly delayed the decision on a third runway at Heathrow for a year. Let us hope that a workable alternative can now be found.

I lived under Heathrow’s flight path for many years and saw the airport grow as an employer, making that part of the world very successful. I have been in Ramsgate in Kent for over 24 years now and seen the opposite, as a developer bought and then closed down Manston Airport.

Campaigners for the expansion of Heathrow or Gatwick emphasise the importance of air cargo. Re-routing the majority of cargo flights to Manston would help to revitalise the local economy. As the RAF, which still occupies part of Manston, will not allow redevelopment of the airfield, I see no reason why it could not reopen for business.

Michael Wheatley-Ward
Ramsgate, Kent

Letters: “Cheaper trade links”

manston airport aerial

From The Telegraph:

SIR – Heathrow has plans to increase air freight at the airport.

However, if air cargo at Heathrow and Gatwick were transferred to Manston Airport in Kent, this would allow passenger flights to be increased at these airports without requiring an extra runway at either.

An improved rail and road network, able to take the increase in freight traffic from Manston, might be cheaper (and more environmentally friendly) than an extra runway at Heathrow or Gatwick. Rail and road links already go to the adjacent port of Ramsgate.

Chris Barmby
Tonbridge, Kent

Letters: “Jet traffic jam”

From The Daily Telegraph (October 6, 2016):

SIR – Governments of all colours have shown cowardice on an epic scale over airport policy, ignoring both economic and safety considerations.

As a pilot of a jet airliner, I know that London’s airspace is operating at capacity. Each day I enter the holding pattern south of Gatwick, then hear on the radio that those going to Heathrow are subject to delays two or three times as long. When I make an approach, it is likely that, due to departing traffic, I won’t get cleared to land until I am about half a mile away from the runway. It is likely that we will be told to abort the landing at less than 300ft if the departing traffic is slow to move.

New runways are needed at both Heathrow and Gatwick, but these won’t solve the capacity problem if an incident happens. After receiving permission to build, Heathrow and Gatwick should share the cost of reopening and maintaining Manston airport in Kent. With its massive runway, it is the ideal place to send aircraft in trouble (be it a technical problem or terrorism) to keep them from built-up areas of the South East.

This move would not only be in the wider public interest but would also help the economy of east Kent.

Keith Jones
Hinton, Wiltshire

This letter can be found on the Telegraph website: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/2016/10/06/letters-mrs-mays-idea-of-state-interference-is-what-we-voted-bre/

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