Many of the arguments put forth in favour of a third runway at Heathrow were sound. Air travel is estimated to grow at 5% per year. The total number of flights using Heathrow rising form 490’00 to 720’000 by the year 2020. The airport itself currently handles about 30% more passengers per year than it was designed to, making some degree of expansion attractive. Additionally, it is right to assume that an expansion would add to Heathrow’s workforce, which already comprises 170’000 people in total. Such a consideration is of particular weight given that Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam are starting to rival Heathrow as hubs for international flights.
However, absent from the debate about whether to press ahead with Heathrow was a focus on what the expansion was designed to achieve. There is no doubt that many short term problems will be addressed by constructing a third runway. Yet the long term effects of the policy will be to bind London’s transport policy to a flawed piece of architecture. In that regard, the Government’s rush to approve a new third runway at Heathrow was a mistake.
It is worth recalling that Heathrow was never designed to be London’s main airport. It was initially constructed as an air force base, located to secure military objectives rather than civilian ones. Whilst it may have been well positioned to defend the UK against the Luftwaffe, it is not an ideal location for mass transit!
Accordingly, Heathrow suffers from a number of inherent flaws. For a third of all passengers arriving at Heathrow, London is not the final destination. Yet despite this fact, Heathrow is not connected to the London via an over ground train line, nor the cities of the north. Its runways run east-west, rather than north-south, forcing planes to fly over the city and its residential areas. The day to day effect of noise pollution is greatly damaging to the surrounding environment. Above all, the Heathrow site itself is limited. There can only be so many expansions before all the territory has been used up.
I have always been of the view that we should consider starting afresh, by constructing a new Thames Estuary airport. The potential benefits of such an airport are clear. It could reduce the noise that affects so many citizens of London. It could provide transit point that was connected to the main train network. Most importantly, it could solve London’s aviation woes once and for all by providing a site that could be expanded many times if need be.
It is also feasible, at least in theory. Similar relocations have occurred before. For instance, La Guardia airport in New York was constructed in order to take the burden off JFK, and Paris has moved its main airport on many occasions. This was the imaginative scheme that the Government should have considered in great detail, instead of falling back upon the tired and familiar.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind is the Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea.