This sort of wishful thinking too often infects policymakers seeking to improve and expand air travel systems. Sometimes, unfortunately, they choose the most expensive option: building an entirely new airport. As I’ve written earlier, this does not happen very often (at least not in developed countries, but check out all the crazy airport construction going on in the UAE). Developing a brand-new airport is a multibillion-dollar project requiring decades of planning, permissions, environmental mitigation, NIMBY lawsuits, and more. The easier course is to expand capacity at existing airports, although this is not always possible. But it is certainly cheaper in the long run than building white elephants like MidAmerica St. Louis Airport or Montreal’s ill-conceived Mirabel International Airport. Mirabel reflects many of the problems with the new-airport concept: it must be built far away from a city center to avoid extensive legal challenges; transit links are often an afterthought; the local market for and technological aspects of air travel may change dramatically; and travelers may hate the airport. A new airport may require regulatory protection, like the Wright Amendment for Dallas-Ft. Worth, the perimeter at National for Washington Dulles, and the international flight rules at Mirabel and Dorval (now Trudeau).
Against this inauspicious history comes the Times of London with a leader arguing for a new airport for London in lieu of expanding Heathrow. The paper writes that Heathrow is too central, too congested, too miserable, and that it cannot be suitably expanded.
Therefore, says the editorial:
There is a simple and affordable solution. A new airport could be built on artificial islands in the Thames estuary, away from the overcrowded city but close enough to be served by fast transport links. . . . There is a proposal on the table, an £11 billion scheme to build an airport on reclaimed land near Cliffe in Kent and Canvey Island in Essex. Money is no reason to reject it; the third Heathrow runway will cost £13 billion. Heathrow can never be a sustainable solution to Britain’s 21st-century needs. A new airport in the Thames estuary just might.
The Times leaves out several considerations which would undercut its case for a new airport. First, technical concerns: airports built on artificial islands may be treading water eventually. (Osaka’s Kansai Airport is slowly sinking.) The weather on the North Sea, where the Thames Estuary empties, is famously foul, with more fog and wind than locations further inland.
Second, although the statement “Heathrow can never be a sustainable solution to Britain’s 21st-century needs” is correct, it neglects London’s four other airports: Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and City. City is small and restricted, serving business travelers almost exclusively. Gatwick, located south of town, is large (in fact, the world’s busiest single-runway airport) and serves many international destinations in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and North America. Stansted, north of the city, is a hub for low-fare carriers in Europe but boasts a few long-hauls. So does Luton, although that airport has traditionally been, like Gatwick, a hub for charter flights as well.
What the Times misses is that both Gatwick and Stansted are excellent expansion prospects. In fact, the UK government white paper on air travel recommends a second runway for Stansted and possibly for Gatwick after a no-expansion planning agreement expires in 2019. (The white paper specifically rejects Cliffe as a potential new airport site.) With modern facilities and room to grow at other London-area airports, why would the Times propose a brand-new boondoggle?
Third, the Times‘s proposal reflects a basic lack of understanding of the airline business. For an aviation policy blogger, I write a lot about the airline business. That’s because policy and regulation have to relate to the industries they affect. One of the key reasons that expansions at Heathrow and Gatwick are appealing is that those airports are connecting hubs for British Airways and other major airlines. Connecting hubs require all flights to arrive and depart from the same airport. (I am always amused to read stories suggesting that the New York-area Stewart International can relieve traffic from Newark and JFK — not likely!) London’s multiple airports work now because of the heavy origin-and-destination traffic — that is, people traveling to and from London, not through it en route to somewhere else — of such a large city. But the BA hub operation requires a single major airport, and Heathrow is that hub. I doubt the British government would ever be so foolish as to do as Canada did with Mirabel and require all international flights to serve it while domestic flights served Dorval. But since the true need in London is increased hub capacity, building a brand new airport in the Thames will not solve the problem.
Building new airports is a huge challenge and process. Our policymakers should always be thinking about ways to expand our air travel system, but they should be aiming at policies that work in practice, are cost-effective, meet real needs, and cooperate with airline business models. The Times‘ s proposal is not the right solution to London’s air travel problems.