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Heathrow airport expansion row: competition is key Tory priority

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
Dave Sewell looks at the real motivations behind the arguments for a third runway at Heathrow
Issue 2324

Heathrow airport expansion has set leading Tories at each other’s throats. But this has nothing to do with meeting our travel needs and everything to do with competition.

The Tories previously pledged to scrap Labour’s plans for a third runway in the face of huge opposition in the area. Some 3,000 people marched in 2008 to stop the expansion.

It would have seen 4,000 homes demolished, including the entire village of Sipson. That’s on top of the increased noise and air pollution for hundreds of thousands of west London residents.

The government’s accounting methods also shrug away the effect of increased greenhouse gas emissions. The flight increase projected for a third runway would put an extra 9.8 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere each year. That’s more than the entire output of some countries.

Pressure to revive the plan cost former transport secretary Justine Greening her job. Former environment minister Tim Yeo challenged David Cameron to push ahead with expansion. “The prime minister must ask himself whether he is man or mouse,” he wrote.

Opponents, led by London mayor Boris Johnson, favour building a new airport with three, four or five runways on the other side of London.

But there’s one thing they all agree on—that the alleged lack of airport capacity in the south east is one of the most urgent problems facing Britain.


The British Chamber of Commerce warned that every year of delay in building new runways will cost “UK plc” between £900 million and £1.1 billion. The case for expansion is egged on with increasingly shrill lobbying by big bosses and London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

But the number of passengers flying in and out of Britain has actually declined in the past four years of economic crisis. And it is utterly irrational for Heathrow to compete with Gatwick and Stansted, or to pit planes in competition with trains.

What British bosses and their supporters are really worried about is losing out in competition to their European business rivals. Britain’s aviation policy is driven by the desire to compete with other European countries.

Most long distance journeys are not direct. They involve transfers at one of a few “hub” airports. Bosses and governments in countries whose airports get the most flights are able to wield the most influence—and cream off the most profits.

Major European hubs, such as Schiphol in Amsterdam, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, Barajas in Madrid and Main in Frankfurt, have four runways.

Heathrow is still first for passenger numbers, but lags behind in number of routes served. So bosses worry that it could lose its pole position.

The calls for a third runway are part of this senseless race between competing airport bosses trying to claw their way to the network’s centre. It will leave Europe with more runways and more short haul flights than it needs—at a mounting cost to people and to the planet.

‘Affordable railways, not airport expansion’

John Stewart is from the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (Hacan). He spoke to Socialist Worker about why the expansion of Heathrow Airport should be opposed.

“Neither a third runway nor a ‘Boris Island’ should go ahead. The danger is that both sides are asking the wrong question. They all assume we need more capacity, instead of asking how much we need and how much we can allow in terms of climate change and residents’ quality of life.

“In terms of capacity, it’s true that Heathrow is almost 99 percent full. But it has enough terminal capacity for an extra 20 million passengers.

“And 25 percent of flights are short haul or to nearby European countries. With those spaces freed up, there could be extra flights to places like China and India.

“Some 45 percent of flights in Europe are 500km or less. That’s about the distance from London to the Scottish border. These are precisely the kind of journeys that could be switched to rail.

“The government says that it is investing in railways, with things like the HS2 high speed rail link. But while high speed rail is part of the solution, I’m not convinced that HS2 specifically can be.

“For me it’s a rich person’s railway, taking a small number of people between London and Birmingham at very high speed and for a very high price. We need more investment in decent affordable railways.

“They are doing nothing about fares, and that’s the critical thing. If you look at somewhere not far away, like Amsterdam, going by train doesn’t take much longer than by plane. But it’s incredibly expensive in comparison.”

It’s the rich who benefit, not us

Budget holidays for ordinary people don’t drive aviation expansion. They are an afterthought. For over a decade the proportion of low income passengers has remained constant, even as flight numbers rocketed.

The poorest 24 percent of the population only make up 8 percent of passengers. Those who benefit from cheap flights are richer people who get to go on holiday more and more often.

Lies about no more expansion

During the Second World War, Tory aviation minister Harold Balfour claimed developing the then minor airfield at Heathrow was essential to the war effort. He used a wartime emergency requisition order to avoid a public inquiry and built a military airport that the RAF never used.

Airline bosses advised that there was big profits to be made in the venture. Since New Labour revived plans to expand it, each time came with a promise it would be the last. Each has been a lie.

£10 billion fuel duty dodgers

Supporters of expansion argue that airports—unlike new rail links—are paid for by the private sector instead of the taxpayer. But aviation bosses are rolling in public money.

They save £10 billion a year from not having to pay fuel duty and their profits are also exempt from VAT. From 1999 to 2009 various government agencies handed out £80 million in explicit subsidies for flight expansion.


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