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Is there still a case for the third runway at Heathrow?
John Quayle 637

Is there still a case for the third runway at Heathrow?

Now aviation has dropped like a stone, when will it build up again?

In one of our earlier postings it was stated quite reasonably in an earlier posting that given the dire position in which civil aviation now finds itself (and frankly it has never been the most stable of industries), is it likely that we will see a third runway at Heathrow (LHR) within the next decade?


Given the lead time involved in the planning and construction of such a project (due to open 2028-9), surely air travel will have recovered from SARSCoV2 some years before first wheels touch down on this new expanse of concrete to the North West of the existing facilities? For example, only last week, Michael O’Leary of Ryanair (not a customer of LHR of course) – a man always keen to voice his opinion – was confidently stating that his airline would have recovered to pre-pandemic passenger figures by summer 2021. This week he is more cautious. So are other major players including BA and the mighty Lufthansa. They are now talking in terms of multiple years, if at all.


But there are other hurdles which are even more likely than the present pandemic to provide the final nail in the coffin of Heathrow’s third runway, and one of them is here to stay.


Firstly, the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, one Alexander Boris Pfeffel Johnson MP, stated unequivocally to his constituents upon his election in 2015 that he would do all in his power to prevent a third runway at LHR. If necessary, he said, he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers and stop the construction”.


Later, faced with a vote in the House of Commons on the Airport Commission’s 2015 report which recommended construction of a third runway at LHR (to “maintain Britain’s status as an international hub for aviation”), he was conveniently absent abroad qua Foreign Secretary.


Two separate and wholly unexpected events then occurred in quick succession. Covid-19 began to seriously rear its ugly head in Britain, decimating the airline industry and those who depend upon it.


Then towards end of February 2020 the Court of Appeal ruled that the government’s airport policy was unlawful because it reached its decision without taking into account the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change. Specifically, the court ruled, the then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling MP had failed to take the Agreement into account because of the erroneous belief that “….he was legally obliged not to take it into account at all”.


Boris Johnson, now Prime Minister, stated that it was not the government’s intention to challenge the ruling, although Heathrow Airport Ltd., owned by a consortium led by Spain’s Ferrovial S.A. have signalled their intention to do so. But, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister is not a fan of the project, and so long as he remains in post, there is no reason to suppose he will look favourably upon it. He doesn’t have unfettered executive power over the final outcome, of course, but the undoubted influence of his high office could certainly play a significant part in that outcome.


How big a threat to air travel is the fight against climate change? It has become a very hot potato, and from quiet beginnings has gained in momentum. Despite still having a large number of detractors, it has nonetheless assumed a position front and centre whenever a major decision is being made. One of the industries perceived to be serious offenders against the climate, apart from factories and coal power stations belching poison gas into the atmosphere, is the airline industry. Once seen as something rather glamorous, the blue eyed boy that is air travel is now firmly in the crosshairs of environmental groups around the world. And there is no doubt, the engines of airliners, even the most modern and fuel efficient, do emit a serious amount of Co2 into the atmosphere.


There have never been as many jet aircraft in the skies above Europe as there were immediately before the arrival of SARSCoV2. The low cost carriers (LCCs) have been a major disruptor upon the old guard of the industry, the slothful full service national carriers, often enjoying a monopoly or duopoly with another, similar, carrier, yet still managing somehow to lose money. The LCCs have made flying affordable for everyone, and it seemed that the public could simply not get enough of it.


At the same time, the long haul industry was changing. New ultra reliable jet engines heralded the era of ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operation Performance Standards) meaning that large twin engine aircraft could fly across the world’s most inhospitable oceans, previously the sole domain of four and three engine jets. Demand for four engine airliners bricked, and both Airbus and Boeing have lost huge amounts of money on their respective A380 and 747-8 projects.


The airlines began serving new, thinner global routes, directly rather than via hubs, with this new generation of smaller, more cost effective types. This obviously diluted the load previously carried in a larger aircraft via a hub, which meant more aircraft were in the air at any given time. New customers also flocked to travel as the result of the economies offered by the new ETOPS enabled jets.


Whilst there is no doubt that modern aircraft are cleaner, in terms of air pollution, there are so many more of them, and emissions continue to climb across the industry. easyJet, for example, operates one of the youngest and most efficient fleets in the business (with an average airframe age of just 3-years). Yet their Co2 emissions for 2019, were higher than in 2018, simply as a result of the increased units operated.


Prime ministers come and go. God willing, this dreadful virus will pass. But addressing climate change is here to stay. Electric aircraft of the size/range required by the major airlines are years away. Jet engines are pretty tolerant of whatever fuel you put in them, but biofuels carry their own environmental issues. So the issue has to be dealt with sooner rather than later, however unpalatable for the industry. The growing body of those against climate change will not allow otherwise. Maybe, just maybe, Heathrow’s third runway will be the first casualty of those unpalatable decisions being taken.  


Capt J W H Quayle – guest writer 03-05-20


The views expressed above are the views of the author and accept no responsibility for them.

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