The question of Heathrow expansion is a tricky one for engineers. Should the third runway/sixth terminal project go ahead — which we are likely to find out within the month — it will be a huge engineering project, of course. An exciting time to be a civil, structural or electrical engineer, and another test of whether the UK can design and build an airport terminal that works. The external factors around the project make this far from just another major infrastructure project, however.
It’s generally seen as a bad idea to make decisions about major infrastructure in the depths of a recession because economic conditions are cyclical, and you can bet that a contracting economy at the start of the project will be a booming one by the end. But the fact is that many engineering sectors are suffering from tough times at the moment, and purely from an economic point of view, a mega-project like this would be a welcome boost. The pro-expansion argument runs that London’s main competitors as trading cities — Paris, Frankfurt, New York and the rising business centres in Asia — are well aware that recession is temporary, and if Heathrow isn’t given room to breathe, it will damage the UK’s competitiveness.
The congestion argument also deserves an airing. Heathrow is full, with the two runways utilised to within an inch of their full capacity. The result is that every time flights have to be cancelled because of the weather or any other reason, there’s no way to increase the frequency of take-offs and landings, and the backlog of flights leads to interminable delays. And you can add as many Gordon Ramsay restaurants, branches of Pret à Manger and swanky shops as you like, nobody likes getting stuck in an airport terminal for five hours plus.
But it’s the environmental argument that’s dominating the debate. Bulldozing villages, pushing more people through the terminals, and increasing the numbers of flights, with the associated increases in carbon emissions and noise, is not something we should be doing when concerns over global warming and scarcity of oil are so pressing, the argument goes. Greenpeace’s stunt of buying a patch of land under the proposed new runway and selling off small parcels of it to prominent campaigners to frustrate the planning process is ingenious, although some of The Engineer’s staff have been wondering whether that might make these little allotments into a rather shrewd investment.
So, is this a win-lose situation either way? Does victory for the engineers mean defeat for the environmentalists? Not necessarily. Technology has a huge role to play here. Development of improved air traffic control systems promises to increase the frequency of take-offs and landings, while guidance systems based around the Galileo global positioning satellite constellation will lead to fewer delays and more efficient routing.
The aerospace industry will also contribute. Behind the concerns over the fuel usage and emissions of civil aircraft lies the undeniable fact that engine efficiency has improved dramatically in recent years, and new engines are far less noisy. The industry is itself facing tough times, with Boeing recently announcing redundancies, but long-term research and development projects continue and future generations of aircraft will be even more efficient.
It could be that, taking these innovations into account, there is actually no need for a third runway at Heathrow, and London’s other four airports could take off some of the strain. But it is an illustration of how complex infrastructure decisions can become when all the factors come into play. Can engineering solve the problem? On its own, almost certainly not. But technology’s importance in these matters can’t be understated, and when it comes to sorting through multiple factors that all depend on each other, engineers should be very high on the list of decision makers.
Special Projects Editor