“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.

“Heathrow litigation: brace for impact!”

The Law Gazette has today published an interesting brief article on Heathrow and the future litigation to be expected as part of the fall-out.  It specifically mentions Manston Airport and Riveroak, but it is interesting because similar legal processes will be used for Heathrow as are currently being used for Manston.

Article written by Michael Cross.

Ah, nostalgia. On 22 January 1981, New Scientist magazine’s cover feature reported what it claimed was ‘the decisive battle in the 28-year war of attrition that has characterised the history of the London airport system’.

I know, because as a spotty young journalist I supervised the edition being cast in lead type by unionised printing tradesmen.

Later that year, I picked up an IATA paper airline ticket from a high street travel agent, hailed a black cab to Heathrow and flew in a bonegratingly noisy Boeing 707 to the Middle East. On the last leg of the flight I was the only passenger.

Thirty-five years on, both air travel and journalism have changed beyond recognition. But the decisive battle in what is presumably now a 63-year war of attrition over London’s airport system is still being fought. So readers may understand my sense of frustration the other day when Angus Walker of City firm Bircham Dyson Bell, an expert in the 2008 Planning Act under which the new Heathrow runway will supposedly be fast-tracked, outlined to me the scale of legal challenges ahead.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t particularly agree with the government’s Heathrow decision. (I would have gone for Heathrow Hub’s northern runway extension, plus Gatwick’s second runway and the RiverOak scheme for Manston in North Kent.) But at least we have a decision. To sabotage it through the courts would imperil not just the UK’s economic growth and international reputation for competence (such as it is…) but also, I believe, respect for the rule of law.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the individual cases, judicial process is already held in fairly low esteem following the Iraq human rights furore; a sentiment ripe for exploitation by populist politicians. This can only get worse if the current article 50 challenge to the government’s powers on Brexit succeeds.

The consequences of the courts dragging out an already decades-old debate, which has finally been resolved by national democratic mandate, could be grim. We need to accept that a decision has been made. Certainly, the Heathrow development should be scrutinised minutely for any deviation from the government’s promises on environmental impacts, but to sabotage it from the word go would be an affront to democracy and, dare I say it, the national interest.

Ah, my green friends will say: what about a higher duty, to the global environment? The glib answer is that airliners are getting more quiet and efficient all the time: in 1981, the Boeing 707, even at full load, burned three times as much fuel per passenger kilometre as its modern equivalents. Its noisy turbojet engines would be banned from any commercial airport today. And in the electronic ticketing and online booking age it is unusual to find any spare seats, let alone an empty cabin.

Yes, but aren’t these improved efficiencies outpaced by the growth in demand for air travel, which it would be highly irresponsible to encourage? Perhaps.

But those who favour the kind of command economy that rations air travel and other consumer goods are free to vote for one; a number of political parties have manifestos along these lines. Attempting to implement such a policy through the courts brings the rule of law into disrepute.

This article was taken from the Law Gazette (http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/analysis/comment-and-opinion/heathrow-runway-litigation-brace-for-impact/5058552.article)

“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)