Business Wants UK Government To Get Off the Fence over London Airport Capacity

 - April 16, 2012, 10:45 AM
Heathrow Airport owner BAA hasn’t given up on demands to build a third runway.

The question of how London will resolve its looming airport capacity crisis just won’t go away, and the UK’s Conservative government appears to be ruing the day that it resolutely ruled out any question of allowing construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport. A promised statement on long-term airport policy for the southeast of England failed to materialize during March, with only a vague commitment in the March 21 budget statement that “the transport secretary will set out government thinking later this summer.”

The thinking of the air transport industry and the wider UK business community already seems pretty clear. Broadly speaking, it believes that continued dithering by Britain’s politicians is seriously threatening London’s status as a global air transport hub. A hot issue in London’s ongoing mayoral election campaign centers on incumbent Boris Johnson’s plan to develop an entirely new airport southeast of the UK capital on a man-made island in the Thames estuary. The solution—assuming it would ever survive the country’s byzantine planning approval process—would take more than a decade to reach fruition. On April 13, UK air traffic control provider NATS said that the proposed site for the new airport is in a totally unsuitable location from an air traffic management perspective and complained that the project’s backers have failed to consult with it over the location. 

In the meantime, the industry continues to push for shorter-term fixes. Just last week, Emirates Airline proposed a lifting of the long-standing ban on night flights from Heathrow (between midnight and 6 a.m.). It wants to exploit the low-noise, steep-approach capabilities of its new Airbus A380 fleet (up to 1 a.m. and from 4 a.m.) to open additional slots at an airport that continues to feel strain at around 99 percent capacity most of the year. Independent mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita supports such incremental moves, and the UK government appears willing at least to consider them as it prepares to issue its delayed policy statement. But Heathrow owner BAA has not given up on lobbying efforts for a third runway and will now intensify its campaign in the months leading up to this summer’s London Olympic Games, while pessimists predict that embarrassing delays at the country’s main gateway will mar the landmark event.