Face facts: Airport expansion could only happen in South East England

stuart thumbnailStuart Nathan
Features editor

The issue of airport expansion is not a simple one, despite what some non-engineering observers seem to think

Observant readers may have noticed that my name has been absent from these pages recently. I’ve had to take an enforced six-week layoff after breaking a collarbone in a bizarre camping accident (don’t let anybody tell you that music festivals aren’t hazardous). Having discovered that, after a while, waiting for bone to heal is an equivalent to watching paint dry or grass grow and that, contrary to expectations, it is possible to watch too many episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation on Netflix, I am now back in harness and observing the world of engineering once again.

Some things, it seems, haven’t changed in my absence. We are still no closer to leaving the European Union, for a start, and it appears that most of the fears of the engineering sector have yet to be allayed. Some political observers (including David Allen Green, the barrister and legal blogger who writes for the Financial Times) have suggested that the reason the government is refusing scrutiny of its Brexit negotiating strategy is that it doesn’t have one; an explanation that seems very likely to me.

But as luck would have it, a real live engineering issue has cropped up just as my turn arrived to write my returning comment. I refer, of course, to the long delayed but hardly unexpected decision to build a new runway at Heathrow Airport. Surely the only thing less surprising than this was Boris Johnson’s seeming amnesia over his promise to lie down in front of a bulldozer to stop the project going ahead (mind you, there’s still time; but I expect that Johnson’s protest would be about as successful as Arthur Dent’s attempt to stop the demolition of his house before the Vogons destroyed the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass).

Many people seem determined to portray the issue of airport expansion as a simple one. On one hand, the UK simply needs much more airport capacity so the decision to expand our busiest airport is a no-brainer; on the other, aircraft are major contributors to carbon dioxide emissions and therefore any airport expansion can only be a bad thing. Both of these views are of course simplistic and wrong. As engineers (or in my case, as someone who has written about engineering for 25 years) we know that decisions like this are never simple, rely a great deal on unpredictable human factors, and that, being by necessity pragmatists, we have to view the situation as it is and not how we wish it should be.

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We see many comments when we raise this subject (and in fact did see them most recently on our last poll on airport expansion) wondering why politicians seem obsessed with airports in the south-east of the country rather than those in the Midlands and North. It’s a valid point, but the answer is simple: London and the south-east is where most people want to go. It’s true that the UK is perhaps unbalanced in its concentration of political, commercial and financial decision-making in London and the south-east and that London has a disproportionate cultural pull, but it’s a relatively small country, this imbalance dates back centuries, and even with some efforts to decentralise (such as the BBC moving much of its television news broadcasting to Manchester) it would take a great deal of social engineering to change the situation.

Heathrow and Gatwick are operating at capacity. That’s why there are such horrendous delays  when anything goes wrong; there is no way for planes to take off or land more frequently than they already do. If air traffic is going to increase – as all projections say it will – London simply needs a new runway. Truth be told, it has done for years.

We also see comments wondering why people don’t just use teleconferencing and stay where they are rather than getting on a plane. Again, this seems like an example of wishful thinking. In many cases, teleconferencing is simply a much poorer substitute for being there in person.

Another inconvenient truth is that people just want to fly more. And not just people in Britain. Any visit to a civil aerospace conference will reveal that the growth in aerospace is being driven by economic development in Asia and to a lesser extent in South America. Standards of living are rising, lower-cost airlines are thriving and people who never got the opportunity to fly before can now access air travel. To respond to this, the aerospace industry has been putting great effort for many years into developing aircraft that use less fuel, produce lower emissions, and are much quieter. Any readers who have visited an airshow and witnessed the Airbus A380 doing a low-speed, low-altitude fly past will be able to attest that you don’t even need to raise your voice to carry on a conversation as it passes, even though the engines are in their least efficient operating condition.

So of course aircraft produce noise and pollution. But each subsequent generation produces less of both, and the drive for airlines to keep their fuel costs down means that they will tend to use up-to-date technology.

It’s also true that there are other sites that could be used for airports in the south-east; Marston in Kent is often mentioned. But the cost of building not only an entirely new airport, with all of its terminal building facilities, tarmac and runways; but also all the transport infrastructure needed to serve it must surely outweigh by several times even the high cost and complexity of building a new runway at an existing airport. To return (reluctantly) to Boris Johnson, he failed to convince anyone that building a new airport in the Thames estuary was a good idea despite strenuous efforts.

So that leaves us, in the real world, having to admit that air traffic is going to rise, that it’s London and the south-east that is most in need of new capacity, and that the issues of pollution are perhaps not the definite stop-sign that environmentalists think they are. It can’t be denied the infrastructure sector is badly in need of a boost, and the new runway project will bring very welcome investment and employment to the sector. This might be a reluctant decision; in an ideal world, there might be no need for airport expansion. But on a personal note, in an ideal world I wouldn’t have tripped over a guy rope and broken my collarbone.