London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, put forward new proposals this week outlining the need for a new airport to be located in south east England. The arguments for more air capacity, as outlined by Daniel Moylan, the deputy chair for Transport for London, on behalf of the Mayor, are compelling.
In 2008, the eccentric Mayor had suggested a new airport in the Thames Estuary (75 miles east of Heathrow) but this was dismissed by his own party. The Conservatives are against all aviation growth in the south east of England on environmental grounds, as reflected in their decision to reject a third runway at Heathrow.
Is a new hub airport, in the Thames Estuary or anywhere else in south east England, really a more viable option than expansion of existing airports? Let’s look at some of the stumbling blocks Boris International will face.
Construction of a new airport would need funding. The cost of the original Boris Island was conservatively estimated at £40 billion. With the current state of the public purse, the chancellor is hardly going to be in the mood to fund a new airport. Even existing infrastructure commitments such as London’s much-needed Crossrail has seen funding cuts following October’s comprehensive spending review.
Who, then, is going to pay for Boris International? If not the taxpayer, then perhaps the funds could come from sovereign wealth, or overseas infrastructure companies. How long would it take to make a return on an investment of this scale?
Building an airport is just one part of the jigsaw. No airport is going to be successful without easy transport links and that requires sufficient investment in road and rail. If the long-overdue Crossrail is having funding problems, where will the money come from to build the transport infrastructure required to link an airport to the U.K.’s capital city?
Construction of Crossrail began some 25 years after it was first mooted. Can the new Boris International wait that long?
If, let’s say, the proposal is accepted by government, a consultation would need to take place. The communities surrounding any proposed site (for both the airport and the road/links) would need to be consulted, and if the mood of residents around existing airports is anything to go by, this is one battle that’s not going to be won easily. In south east England, nobody wants an airport in their back yard.
Let’s continue to imagine, beyond our wildest imaginations, that the consultation gets through a planning inquiry and legal obstacles are overcome, there’s then the time it will take to build the physical airport. It would take at least fifteen years of planning, legal and political issues and construction challenges before we could even take a peek inside the new terminal.
By then, London would have long ago lost its status as a competitive hub. Today’s strained air capacity has already left the U.K. lagging behind its European counterparts.
An expert view
I discussed with Charles Buchanan, a man with significant experience in U.K. airport development and currently CEO of Manston airport, what other barriers would prevent Boris International from ever taking off.
The human factor
Let’s consider the human resources needed to operate this scale of airport. 77,000 staff are employed at Heathrow by the airport operator BAA and the companies operating on the airport site. Buchanan says that Boris International will not have the luxury of starting small and developing to a substantial size over a number of years. “In order to succeed it will need to be operating at high levels of traffic from day one,” he says. “Where do you get this number of people from in an instant?” asks Buchanan. “Can these numbers of trained staff be source in the Thames Gateway?”
Those staff, largely operational, would need to live within commutable distance from the airport. That means more housing. SE London is already strained on that front, and creating neighborhoods to house airport workers and their families simply creates the same problems existing airports are facing today. Boris calls Heathrow a planning disaster, but when Heathrow was built, it didn’t have as many communities and business located close to it. The same would happen in the areas surrounding Boris International, and in years to come, local communities would be campaigning against the very entity that brought their families to the area in the first place.
London already has a vast choice of airports surrounding it – Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and City. The latter two might be smaller but they’re no less important to London’s wider economy. Looking slightly further out, there’s Oxford (rebranded ‘London Oxford’ just two years ago), Southend and Manston which is just 75 minutes from London on the high speed rail service. Even Cambridge airport announced just last week that it’s open to commercial business.
Improved transport links to these lesser known airports have made them more viable options for international passengers. However, there’s one glitch: what airline is willing to take the risk?
“This leads on to the second issue that it not often talked about”, says Buchanan. “How do you get airlines to move to the new airport, and in sufficient numbers and with the necessary speed to make the business case work.”
“Experience is that airlines will not want to be the first to jump and risk being frozen out of Heathrow and the established catchment area it serves. In other cities where new major airports have been developed the former site has been closed (or substantially reduced in service and restricted) as the new one opens.”
Just look at Hong Kong or Berlin. In fact, BA chief Willie Walsh has already said he’s not interested in moving.
“In many cases the new one has been on the same side of the city to that which it has replaced, reducing the local economic damage and the human resource displacement issues,” says Buchanan.
“How will that happen in the privatized market in the U.K? What government is going to say that it will close Heathrow? And how would they do so? What would be the impact on the Thames Valley economy (where Heathrow is located)?"
It is for these reasons, Buchanan believes, that the U.K. government is not supporting the idea of a Boris Island or Boris Peninsular Airport in the Thames estuary.
If a new airport is not feasible, additional runways and air transport movements, as well as fuller use of the existing capacity at all airports in the region, are the only realistic measure for future prosperity and growth of the U.K.
London's Mayor needs to be more realistic and support growth of existing airports.