London/Heathrow Third Runway Approved, Protests Abound

LHR - London/Heathrow

We’ve heard the beginning of this story a million times. Airport wants to expand, people protest, and the process gets bogged down for years and years. On the surface, that’s what has happened with Heathrow’s bid to build a third runway to alleviate congestion and to grow, but underneath, it’s a different kind of situation. And that’s why the recent approval to build the third runway has been met with wide-ranging protests.

Usually, the only people protesting airport expansion are those who live around the airport. They don’t like the noise and the traffic, even though the airport in most cases was there long before they arrived. And while we have seen that with Heathrow, the bigger protest has actually centered around the environmental impact on a broad scale.

It makes absolute sense to add a third runway at Heathrow. The airport is bursting at the seams, and there really aren’t any better options for more capacity, despite London Mayor Boris Johnson’s ill-fated support for a (zany) brand new airport in the middle of the Thames estuary. But many people in the UK are now saying that there shouldn’t be expansion because airplanes pollute too much. They don’t want more plane flights in London at all, despite the benefits that are brought to the population.

Look at some of these headlines . . . “Concrete and calamity at Heathrow” or “Third Heathrow Runway a Massive Step Backwards.” But it gets even crazier than that. “MP suspended from Commons after picking up mace in Heathrow protest” shows how people are really losing their minds over this. Many are saying that the government has let them down in the fight against climate change. I just have to shake my head.

People act like there are no efforts in the world of aviation to reduce emissions. That’s absurd. Engine manufacturers are jumping over each other to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency as we speak. And as those emissions come down, there’s no reason that we should restrict further air travel growth because of the tremendous economic benefits it provides.

It’s not like the government is completely ignoring climate change here. With the new runway, they have committed to building an intermodal hub for high speed train travel at the airport, something that may very well kill many short haul flights and encourage people to travel greener. The government will also restrict use of the new Heathrow slots that the new runway will open only to the greenest aircraft flying. On top of that, the government only approved half the new number of flights that were originally proposed.

The new runway won’t be built until 2015 at the earliest, and that means there’s plenty of time for people to predict gloom and doom. Some think the requirements to use only the greenest aircraft will fall under pressure, but I would be surprised. This is the right thing to do, without question, but if anything it will put even more pressure on Heathrow to focus on green initiatives.

24 comments on “London/Heathrow Third Runway Approved, Protests Abound

  1. The new runway won’t be built until 2015 at the earliest

    I work in a field where I have to deal closely with regulatory processes, construction and very long project schedules. I personally know things like this take time, especially when dealing with eminent domain, property takeover and demolition, etc. That said, this is a strip of concrete and some wiring for lights. Nowhere near the engineering of other transit projects like a tunnel or suspension bridge that legitimately take years to complete. Once approvals are in place this is an easy project, relatively speaking.

    Given the times we live in today where oil can go from near $150/barrel to under $40 in less than 6 months there is no telling what Heathrow traffic will look like in 2015. It just amazes me how long it takes to do something so easy and so badly needed right now.

  2. LHR is bursting at the seams, but I do sympathise with the local population. Of course let’s not forget many thousands of jobs in the area rely on the airport and its future success. If LHR gets relegated to a regional hub then we will suffer when we don’t have the many direct connections we enjoy today. And I agree, Boris Johnson’s idea is complete lunacy. The Thames estuary is miles from anywhere and is probably the biggest bird sanctury in the south east of England. As we know from recent experience, birds and planes are not a good mix!

    However, I do think the whole decision has been poorly handled. When T5 was pushed through the government promised there wouldn’t be a third runway, now only to go back on that less than a year after T5 is opened. This was a big mistake and did nothing to build trust among the local community. Also I’m not sure how concrete this hub for high speed travel is. The cost of high speed rail is significantly higher than building runways and in these tough economic times with the government spending hundreds of billions to prop up our banking system I wonder if these initiatives will quietly disappear once the ground has been broken for the third runway.

  3. Dumb question – wouldn’t a third runway reduce congestion and delays and therefore results in less waste of time and fuel?

  4. A further issue here is ground transportation to the airport. The air pollution standards that will kick in in 2015 (the UK government can be fined by the EU if it fails to meet them) apply to all pollution generated by the airport, not just aircraft. I don’t think they can increase flights without seriously limiting the number of cars driving into the airport, and that’s going to mean a toll of some sort. Otherwise I can see them opening this runway but keeping the number of movements the same as now – which would be no bad thing at all in terms of making the airport more efficient.

    As for “it’s only a strip of concrete, some lights, etc.” Well yes, but there are about 400 houses, with people in, already where that concrete is supposed to be.

  5. The Big K – Not a dumb question at all. It would certainly allow for that, and I’m sure there wouldn’t be environmental concerns were it only to reduce existing congestion. But the new runway will permit a slew of new flights into the airport, and that’s the problem.

  6. A third runway does not change the fact that LHR is an appalling airport which is an embarrassment to the UK, a dreadful welcome to visitors. If the UK actually had any transport policy of note it would have devolved some of the capacity to regional airports, thus cutting the considerable movement of people from the rest of the UK down to LHR as the only place to fly out of. The Thames estuary airport isn’t Boris’s idea (he supports it), and it is miles out of London, but LHR and LGW are hardly central and we royally rip people off in what we charge for train and taxi fares into central London from both of these airports.

  7. Bobber – The runway may not make it any more welcoming, but plenty of other projects will. From everything I’ve heard T5 is now working very well and the reviews have been stellar. Skyteam will be doing some major renovation on T4 to bring it up to speed. T3 will also see extensive renovations and T1 and 2 will ultimately be replaced by the brand new Heathrow East. On top of that, this new runway will also bring a new T6, so things are moving along well and the passenger experience is getting much better.

    Also, they are pushing some capacity to regional airports – Stansted, for example, is probably getting its second runway (against Ryanair’s objections).

  8. Boris’ idea of building an idea in the Thames estuary has 2 safety problems. The first is the large number of birds in the local area – discussed at length in relation to La Guardia last week. The other issue is the shipwreck of the SS Richard Montgomery. This was a transport ship from WW2 that ended up wrecked on a sandbank close to where Boris suggests the new airport might be built. The problem is that it *still* contains 3,173 tons of munitions or 1,400 tons of TNT. If it were to go off, it would throw debris 10,000 feet into the air. The US Govt offered to dispose of it all after WW2, but the UK Govt turned the offer down because the clean-up seemed just too risky.

  9. The idea of an airport in the Thames estuary is not as crazy as is being suggested. It’s main problem is that it’s several decades too late. If the decision had been made when it was first seriously suggested as the solution to Heathrow’s inherent overcrowding, something like 30 years ago, London could now have a spacious and uncrowded airport, with approaches being made over water rather than right across the middle of a major urban area. The time to have made that switch was probably before committing the investment to building T4 at LHR, let alone T5 or T6. If the UK approach to infrastructure development were closer to the French approach, we would be sitting back and enjoying the benefits; the UK approach of being scared of making more than incremental changes has blighted our rail network as well as airport planning.

  10. @David
    The Richard Montgomery problem was not one I had heard of before, but I am not sure that I understand its relevance. The Wikipedia article you link to implies the wreck is off Sheerness, but that’s about ten miles south of Maplin which is the site about which (as far as I am aware) most of the serious thinking has been done about siting an airport in that area. Assuming (which may also be wrong) either and E-W or SW-NE configuration for the main runways, as the most obvious way of ensuring that traffic was kept over water as much as possible, planes wouldn’t go anywhere near the wreck site. Or am I missing something here?

  11. I don’t get the environmental concern here. All the third runway would do is relieve congestion and give room to grow. Without these things, an additional airport in the London metro area or moving/adding flights to Gatwick or Stanstead would eventually be required to meet demand. A third runway would prevent that. And isn’t that an environmental net gain? Surely the cost of a new airport in terms of environmental impact is more than the cost of a third runway at Heathrow, right? And the environmental impact is the same if a flight is going into Heathrow as it is going into any other London airport, right? I’m not getting the argument here.

  12. These kinda of protests, like the run on to the runway at Stansted Airport is more of what I call Environmental Harassment. There is a billion more ways there concerns could be dealt with but these groups, a small group unnecessary disrupt business.

  13. What I find amusing about this is that the Conservatives have pitted themselves pretty categorically against this project, and, lo and behold, find themselves in bed with the greens, crusties, and so on. They’ve previously set themselves up as the party for business, progress, expansion and so on, and now, having nailed their colours to this mast, appear to be the Luddites, solely (I suspect) because it was Someone Else’s Act.
    If (when?) they get into power, watch for Boris and Dave’s assurances (“over my dead body”) being quietly forgotten and all sorts of justifications being provided.

  14. “Usually, the only people protesting airport expansion are those who live around the airport. ”
    True. But in Heathrow’s case, the approach to the runways flies right over the city. I live in 12 miles from Heathrow (i.e. pretty much in the centre of London), but directly under the southerly approach flightpath and believe me, the noise is pretty loud, particularly at 5am when the first flights come in. The 3rd runway would make the noise issue worse because Heathrow would be able to drop mixed-mode use of the existing runway and allow continuous approaches (currently we get respite for half the day when direction of approach is reversed).
    The environmental aspects get more press, but it’s the noise issues for the millions of us who don’t live anywhere near the airport that matter more for a lot of people. See for more on the noise, proposed flightpaths etc.

  15. The 3rd Runway makes the most sense, with apologies to CSDF for the noise over the middle of town.

    An airport in the Thames Estuary is essentially an airport in the North Sea, one of the most temperamental bodies of water in Europe. The cost of land reclamation for an airport high enough to avoid regular flooding much less the service disruptions alone point right back to simply expanding LHR.

    As far as the global community is concerned there is only one airport in Paris, CDG. Orly is largely for the locals and cheap European outfits. I love London and respect the space and noise constraints of the UK in general. That said it still amazes me why all this fuss over a city that doesn’t seem to need and yet defends the existence of five international airports.

    Build the 3rd runway and close one of those under-used airports across town like Stansted or Luton.

  16. Optimist – In 2008, Stansted had 22.3 million pax passing through while Luton had 10.2 million. Until the movements cap at STN was recently lifted, STN was full for anything except the most undesirable slot timings. Even Luton with a mere 10 million ranks as the 5th busiest airport in the UK. LHR needs a 3rd runway just for itself – it’s already running daily at well over 95% of movements capacity. By 2019, when a 3rd runway opens at LHR it is extremely unlikely that all the traffic at Luton could be absorbed into the remaining London airports. London’s airports in 2007 handled about 50 million *more* pax than Paris’ airports – there really is that much air transport to/from London.

    In Paris, both CDG and Orly are owned by AdP. In London, BAA is definitely selling Gatwick and may also sell STN. This would mean at least 4 out of the 5 London airports being owned by different companies – a fantastic way to ensure strong competition, improve standards at airports throughout the South East of the UK, and keep airport fees low.

  17. Thanks for the numbers, David. I did some math and added up the five London airports to around 140 Million. That’s a lot of movement.

    Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City. That’s a lot to sort out.

    Euston, St. Pancras, King’s Cross, Victoria, Waterloo, Paddington and Charing Cross. Ditto.

    Runway-3 at LHR won’t do much for BritRail but I’m all for any infrastructure improvement that will help the poor fool who’s never been to London before.

  18. @ Mike: the issue is that as well as giving permission for a third runway, they’ve given permission for a 40% (I think – certainly that order of magnitude) increase in movements. That is what people are complaining about. It also means that LHR will not get any better – it will go from operating at 99% capacity and unable to recover from weather, incident, etc., to still being in the 90%s of capacity and not great at reovering from issues.

    @csdf: I’m also under the southern approach, about 7.5 miles from LHR and I have to say I’ve never been woken by a plane. Friends who come to visit notice it, but after 8 years of living under the flightpath I don’t even really notice them when walking around (although I’ll often look up in a geeky plane spottery way if I unconsciously notice a different engine noise). That said, I do have friends who live about 3 miles closer still, and there I do find the noise a lot more instrusive, and I am very glad they are not adopting mixed mode.

  19. Optimist – the UK Govt was seriously considering rationalising London’s train termini does to just 4 in the 1960s. Alas passenger traffic has grown far beyond the levels of 40 years ago. You’ve missed the following terminals in your list – Liverpool Street, Fenchurch Street, Blackfriars, London Bridge, Cannon Street and Marylebone, making a total of 13, yes thirteen, major train termini in central London !

  20. I knew you’d catch that, David! I was purposely leaving out all the commuter stations and sticking with the big guns cuz I couldn’t name them all! LOL

    Flying in to London is always interesting. Do you get the Thames River approach or Windsor Castle but, again, as someone who lives under DFW, I understand it’s not always fun for the people on the ground.

  21. @Simon. Above Battersea/Wandsworth, the planes do something with their engines which results in a load roar – probably straightening up for the final approach. If you’re outside you actually have to raise your voice to be heard. On some days, when the wind’s wrong for an approach from the East towards Heathrow, we have the fun of the City airport approach (from the South, veering East) instead. :/ Luckily those are mostly props, but still…

  22. CSDF – Five possible reasons for change in engine pitch
    1) Wind direction change which can make them seem louder.
    2) Slow approach. Need to speed up a tad for spacing.
    3) Below glide slope. Need to increase altitude a hair.
    4) Vector change. Maintain speed while turning slightly.
    5) Attitude adjustment. Raising the nose but keeping speed.

    Those more expert than I may add other reasons to this list but those tend to be some of the more common causes.

  23. You know I had few connections in UK when I was traveling to Italy and it was Packed, and nerve wracking getting from one gate to another. I hope they fix this and somehow still save the Earth.

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