Airline Alliances Speak Out for Heathrow in London Airport Row

 - August 19, 2013, 1:00 PM
The UK’s independent Airport Commission is now considering no fewer than 50 separate proposals for developing additional airport capacity for London, but major airline alliances have made it clear that they would prefer to remain at Heathrow Airport. (Photo: BAA)

The world’s three leading airline alliances have signaled their unwillingness to relocate from London Heathrow Airport in the event that a government-appointed commission proposes the development of a second hub airport for the UK capital. Statements made to the Financial Times newspaper last week by Oneworld (led by British Airways), Star Alliance (which includes Lufthansa, United Airlines and Singapore Airlines) and SkyTeam (which includes Air France-KLM, Delta Air Lines and China Eastern) have strongly suggested that they would favor the option of substantially redeveloping Heathrow and retaining it as London’s prime hub. If nothing else, it seems clear that none of the alliances would accept forcible relocation if authorities allow its competitors to stay at Heathrow.

However, the independent airports commission established last year by the UK’s Conservative-led government in response to accusations that, like its Labour predecessor, it has compromised London’s stature as an air transport epicenter by dithering over airport policy, now must wade through approximately 50 separate proposals to relieve Heathrow’s capacity squeeze. They include building a third runway at Heathrow itself and no less contentious plans to build an entirely new airport, most likely on a new man-made island in the Thames Estuary. The fact that London’s high-profile mayor, Boris Johnson, personally supports the offshore airport plans has made the battle over the two core proposals all the more politically tinged, to the extent that the concept has become known as Boris Island. Johnson, a flagrant self-publicist even by political standards, has engaged in what observers consider an undeclared campaign to replace his fellow Conservative David Cameron as Britain’s Prime Minister. His prime case against expanding Heathrow centers on the argument that more traffic would inflict discomfort on largely Conservative-voting residents of various leafy southwest London suburbs. Until he appointed the commission last year, Cameron sought to sit on the proverbial fence over the issue but then opted to consign the decision to someone else–in this case, the commission–after drawing accusations of stunting the UK’s economic recovery by failing to act. Plans call for the commission to publish a shortlist of airport development options by year-end, but it remains unclear exactly how the decision will take place.

Meanwhile, the management of London Gatwick Airport does not want to see its facility lose relevancy. It has therefore proposed the construction of a second runway there–a plan roundly resisted by local residents in the past. Stansted and Luton airports also have expressed eagerness to fill any void potentially created by an inability to develop Heathrow. The commission, led by economist Sir Howard Davies, must also evaluate the extent to which an assortment of other UK airports and airfields, including Birmingham, Lydd, Manston, Fairoaks and Cardiff, could absorb any overflow traffic from Heathrow. Proponents of that kind of approach have presented a credible case for making better use of other airports in the southeast of England and even farther afield. But the message from the major airline groupings seems clear: they see Heathrow as the only game in town, and they want to keep it that way.



The comment regarding the three major airline groups, that they prefer Heathrow, as 'the only game in town', and that 'they would like to keep it that way', has a ring of veracity. After all, it is the airlines which generate the business; and they, in their turn, depend upon the flying public for their patronage and income.

As British Airways now have their main passenger facility at terminal 5, and also at the new terminal 2; it is easy to see why, having made such big investments in fixed property at Heathrow, BA is hardly likely to be willing to vacate such facilities; and why they prefer to have a third runway at Sipson, which would be extremely high, in terms of costs: both infrastructural and financial)

A second runway at Gatwick is a possibility, but with huge environmental disadvantages.

An airport on the Isle of Grain would have to be sited on the site of a major electricity power station (which would have to be replaced), and a large oil-refining centre; as well as having the sunken wreck of the SS Montgomery, with 1400 tons of explosives, 5000 metres from the ends of the proposed runways, and in the direct flight paths of aircraft landing or taking off. Also, the site is too small for all the ancillary facilities required.

An airport on an artificial island in the river Thames estuary may be ruled out on the grounds of impeding the flow of the river; also on the grounds of excessive infrastructural costs.

The airport at Stansted has already destoyed 12 000 acres of some of the best agricultural land in England; and a second runway might double that environmental impact.

One could therefore possibly predict that any future government decision is likely to be based on pragmatism and most of all on costs (financial and political, that is).

But the real issue is SAFETY. That is the major issue for passengers and crews
alike. And that is the issue which should, indeed must, come first.

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