“Thanks to @Schiphol CEO Jos Nijhuis for the congratulations cake (and for letting us 'borrow' your runway for now)!,” Heathrow tweeted back in July 2015.
On Oct. 19, 2016, the runway decision was kicked back again, this time by just a week until Oct. 25. “Yep, we did send a cake. But with the best intentions,” Schiphol said.
The problem here is the cost of indecision – the cost of doing nothing. Until 2014, Heathrow ranked as the world’s third busiest airport – a position it had held pretty consistently for over a decade. In 2015, it slipped to sixth place, with Dubai and Chicago entering the top five.
If you look at the economic benefits, it’s a no-brainer. But this isn’t just about economics, it’s also about people, politics and the environment. And the politics is the biggest hindrance, as no government wants to be the one to take – or not reverse – this call.
What’s more, any decision won’t be a decision anyhow. A decision isn’t action – it will be contested - so maybe Schiphol should get baking.
If the catchily-named Economic and Industrial Strategy (Airports) sub-committee decides to grab that poker on Oct. 25 and opt for the third runway, the decision isn’t expected to go to a binding parliamentary vote until winter 2017-18.
Once that hurdle has been crossed – if it gets crossed – there will be a “full and fair public consultation.” Then we will have the standard planning application process to get through before any tarmac is ever laid. In that time, there’s plenty of scope for another u-turn. Whenever one government backs Heathrow expansion, it gets overturned by another government.
Then we can look forward to decades of legal challenges. All in all, it might be a good idea to make those cakes low-fat, because I don’t think the October 2016 bake-off will be the last.
But should the tarmac go to Heathrow anyway? According to Gatwick, no. Over the last weeks, months and years, hardly a day has gone past when Heathrow, Gatwick, or both airports haven’t e-mailed me to say why they should be the chosen one.
In my view, both airports have undermined their arguments with unbearably intense lobbying and two-way mud-slinging. I think the vast majority of Londoners just want it to end. My personal view is in line with Ryanair’s: give everyone a runway and let the market decide who wins.
Gatwick has some points going for it. Expansion there would be cheaper, cause less disruption and balance Heathrow’s dominance. Also, the argument that Heathrow is the natural hub is slightly undermined by Gatwick actually having a larger network – including far more short-haul connecting destinations – compared with Heathrow’s long-haul focus.
And what about pollution? This is a favourite Gatwick lobbying point against Heathrow. But, according to Cambridge University, the main problem is cars, not aircraft. Anyone who’s tried to get to Heathrow will know what a nightmare that is, but it’s hardly news that the UK needs to brush up on its transport links. The aviation industry is doing a huge amount to minimize its environmental footprint – after all, it’s in airlines’ best interests to cut fuel burn and emissions – and this would have to be part of any agreement.
Aviation needs to earn its licence to grow, but can the UK afford to sacrifice its already shaky post-Brexit economy and handover potential growth to other regions of the world just to be seen to be green? Ditching the third runway doesn’t solve emissions, it simply allows other countries to claim the economic benefits for themselves.
Finally, this is not a Brexit issue. Heathrow has been in competition with Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam for years. This is one of Europe’s main problems. Even within its own single market, it is fragmented and in competition with itself – undermining competitiveness against more joined up blocs. Look no further than European ATC (and strikes), compared with the US, for ample evidence of this efficiency imbalance.
But the bottom line is people. UK residents want to travel by air. What’s more, they want cheap air travel. Yet, they don’t want to live under a flight path. They want to be green, but not if it costs more.
You’re never going to please everyone, so – if that’s the UK government’s ambition – they might as well enjoy the cake. There will be plenty.
Photo credit: Heathrow Airport
Victoria Moores email@example.com