Flying isn’t something most people do for fun but connections are good for business and prosperity. Thankfully the Committee on Climate Change says that aviation can expand without risking our ambitious climate change targets.
Hub airports are particularly important. They draw in passengers from a range of places, making flights to many destinations viable. The one flight from Wuhan to Europe – to Paris – relies on transfers at Charles de Gaulle. That flight gives Paris a head start in attracting the European HQs of firms from Wuhan. I want flights like that to come to London, not Paris.
I think Britain should have what every major city has: a four runway hub. New York, Paris, Frankfurt: all have four runway hub airports. The question is how to provide one, at an acceptable economic and social cost.
Boris Johnson and Foster and Partners propose building one on the Isle of Grain. This is not the answer. Putting aside the colossal financial cost, and the local environmental costs, and this still isn’t the answer. Yes, it would be quieter, but it is slow to get to, at least for those who don’t live next door to St Pancras station. An airport that is hard to get to misses the point: flying is about speed.
Given where people live and work, Heathrow is much the easiest airport to get to. But expanding Heathrow has traditionally been far too noisy to contemplate. That is why Susan Kramer and others in all parties were right to campaign against the third runway.
My report solves this access v noise issue by proposing a four runway Heathrow, but with all four runways further west. They would be located over the M25 and Wraysbury reservoir. The runways would be relatively close together. Moving the runways west makes planes higher and so quieter over London, and keeping them close together reduces the width of the noise, and so the number of people who can hear the planes. These two factors alone mean that the number of people affected by daytime noise would fall by a quarter, even though the number of planes would rise by three quarters.
I would go further in reducing noise. First, I would ban the noisiest planes altogether. Second, I would end night flights – possible because of the extra slots. Third, I would land narrow bodied planes more steeply, so that they are (even) higher up and so (even) quieter.
Together this package gives us a larger, but quieter Heathrow airport. No airport will ever be silent, but this is the quietest expansion of Heathrow we are ever likely to see.
For sure, Liberal Democrats have long opposed expanding Heathrow. But we did so, not as a fundamental principle, but because we were concerned about noise. If the facts about noise change, we should change our minds.
* Tim Leunig is Chief Economist at CentreForum. He served as an advisor to the Barker Review on Land Use, and is a former Inside Housing columnist.