Does Britain really need more runways?

Plans to expand Heathrow have become a high controversial topic of debate. But are we asking the wrong question? Emily Hohler reports.

Britain has been publishing plans to expand its airport capacity in the southeast for 50 years and has dropped every one of them. So the fate of the interim report published by Sir Howard Davies' Airports Commission is uncertain, says the FT. He won't even be making his final report until after the general election in 2015.

But his central recommendation, that Britain needs two extra runways one by 2030 and the second by 2050 is "sensible and should be heeded". London's airport facilities will struggle to cope with demand. Heathrow already operates at 98% capacity.

Unless new flight routes to fast-growing countries are added, Britain's competitiveness will be affected. Davies' shortlist includes three projects: two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick.

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There will be an additional investigation into the proposed new hub on the Isle of Grain in Kent, as advocated by Boris Johnson, but his £112bn dream is likely to prove "too disruptive". A second runway at Gatwick would cost £10bn-£13bn. Expanding Heathrow would cost £13bn-£18bn.

These interim findings amounted to "an indigestion-inducing confection", says The Independent. "Ostensibly, the whole purpose of the Commission was to seek clarity", yet we are no nearer to a "definitive outcome".

Any expansion is controversial because of the conflicting financial and environmental pressures, but the business community wants Heathrow and despite the outrage from those under the flight path that should "weigh heavily".The economy matters to us all, "and if our largest corporate employers and taxpayers say Heathrow, then Heathrow has to be considered".

The debate is already dominated by business, and it shouldn't be, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian: 80% of London's air passengers are non-business. As for being a global hub, "barely a third of Heathrow passengers are in transit".

Heathrow's talk about "UK plc" is "just lobbying for public money". If Heathrow really wanted more business flights to Asia and South America it would reallocate slots to them, rather than "stuffing its schedule" with British and European destinations. "By encouraging (in effect, subsidising) ever more Britons to holiday abroad, extra runway capacity would probably harm rather than help the balance of payments."

And one of the reasons air travel is growing is because aviation fuel for long-haul flights is untaxed, says The Independent on Sunday. This is also why aviation is "one of the fastest-growing sources" of carbon emissions. Of course the economy matters, but "we should ensure that our material advance does not steal from our children's future".

The priority should be to use existing capacity more efficiently, not to build more. "There may be a conflict between making money and protecting the environment, but money is only one part of the quality of life, and the environment is another."

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.