Saturday, July 14, 2012

Capital punishment

Before British politicians descend upon Cornwall later this month for their annual holiday-come-PR stunt ("We always take our holidays in Britain. It is super here!"), there are still several vexing issues still to deal with.

One, in particular, is congestion. No, not Ed Milliband's adenoids, but that bunged-up patch of West London that is Heathrow Airport.

Having lived outside Britain for the past 13 years I've come to regard Heathrow with a combination of necessity and progressive loathing. I have watched it become steadily broken, less of a convenient portal and more of a dystopian hell that can't cope with itself.

Heathrow, today, is somewhere between an exclusive members-only club you wait years to be accepted into, and an ultra-strict penal colony that only grants one parole each year as the gift of the benevolent local dictator. Moreover, it has clearly stopped being able to meet its basic purpose.

Heathrow is a miserable experience. And yet the airport proudly boasts that it is the world's busiest airport while maintaining that it is only working at "near-full capacity", a PR device to suggest things aren't quite that bad. Well, they are.

As, technically, a 'foreigner', arriving at Heathrow is a fraught affair. Almost always before your plane's wheels have touched tarmac, you are held in a seemingly endless 'holding pattern', spiralling at 10,000ft over Kent.

Once you've landed - and assuming there isn't a departing aircraft blocking your flight's designated arrival gate - you must then be subjected to the purgatorial nightmare of Border Control, itself rapidly becoming the greatest oxymoron since 'military intelligence'.

Leaving Heathrow is little better: in each terminal there are vast arrays of security inspection lines but, like supermarket checkouts on Christmas Eve, usually only a handful are staffed (and by belligerent characters barking orders about removing laptops and iPads from their cases, and to take off shoes in order for you to walk socked or barefoot through everyone else's podiatric detritus). When your flight eventually 'pushes back' from its gate, it then gets stuck in a queue of several aircraft, their engines burning a small hole in the ozone layer above Hounslow, to tear up the departure runway.

Heathrow is no longer a gateway to freedom. Or a gateway to anything, for that matter. Instead, it has become a byword for inconvenience: "I got totally Heathrowed the other day trying to get out of the supermarket car park. Everyone trying to leave by the one exit" or "Absolute chaos at Stamford Bridge on Saturday - only one turnstile open. 41,000 people trying to pass through it at once - a right Heathrow it was." You get the picture.

My most recent experience underpins this: my flight was due to leave Heathrow at 12.45pm; I, my fellow passengers and even the crew had made the effort to be sat down, buckled in and facing the right direction at the appointed time. Unfortunately, the plane remained on the ground with its chocks in place for a further twenty minutes. Once given permission to go, we then spent a further twenty minutes in an Airbus tailback on the taxiway. This is an airport operating somewhat beyond full capacity.

My eventual arrival in Paris, however, was somewhat different. The plane landed straight from its planned descent, with another plane touching down simultaneously on a parallel arrivals runway. Passport inspection was effortless and organised, even if the two surly gendarmes looked like we were interupting their otherwise soulless day, and with only a brief wait for baggage, I was on my way home.

This is replicated in other hubs around Europe - Frankfurt, Amsterdam-Schiphol (which has use of seven runways) - and in the United States, where airports like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Miami operate at high capacity but with multiple runways to support them.

Heathrow, on the other hand, clearly can't. Short of bulldozing half the borough of Hounslow, and half the borough of Hillingdon, it can't expand.
Talk of a third runway - which the Government agreed to drop going into the last general election, but is now creeping back into conversation - is still a Band-Aid for a wound requiring amputation.

Because a third runway isn't about alleviating the congestion, it's about being able to increase the traffic, that it would enable the addition of at least two more terminals. I'm sorry, but I thought the additional runway was to address existing congestion, not bring in even more planes and even more passengers.

The debate surrounding Heathrow is a lively one, even if British transport minister Justine Greening recently referred to it as a "pub discussion" amongst the airline operators. It's not, and it goes beyond the airlines, the airport operator, even the government, but to those who live under Heathrow's flight paths and, dare I say it, those who actually want to travel to and from London.

Heathrow opened 83 years ago as a small airfield near a Middlesex village. As World War 2 drew to a close, it developed into something bigger. 25 years ago, Heathrow was handling 31 million passengers each year. In 2011, 70 million people passed through it - more than the UK's population. Actually, "passed" through it sounds too gentle: "squeezed" sounds better. Each of those passengers represents a plane taking off and landing, on average, just over every minute of every day between 6am and 11pm.

Statistically, flying is one of the safest forms of transport, but surely no amount of technology, safeguards and good fortune can prevent the law of averages from causing a major accident? 

Not that long ago, a British Airways Boeing 777 crash landed just short of the Heathrow runway. The explanation given was that a build-up of ice in the flight from China had caused a blockage of fuel into the engines. By a minor miracle and, no doubt the heroism of the pilots, the plane's 'hard landing' could have been worse. 

With Heathrow on London's west side, in a country with a prevailing south-westerly wind, there is one plane every minute crossing a city of eight million residents and anything up 12 million coming in and out of it. It is, London's Mayor Boris Johnson has said, "an historical accident". "London is unlike any other capital in the world," he told the BBC earlier this year. "We ask our planes to fly in over the city and land in the western suburbs. Nobody else does it that way."

Occasionally Heathrow will resort to easterly operations, with planes flying in over Windsor Castle and taking off over London. Either way, with a desire to increase the number of flights coming into London - bringing more Chinese and Middle Eastern businessmen with them - any expansion of Heathrow must come with a commensurate increase in risks (or, as Johnson put it: "We should not aggravate that mistake"). It is claimed that the lack of direct flights coming from emerging markets is costing the British economy an estimated £1.2 billion every year.

So, that's been a long list of the complaints. What about the solutions and alternatives? This month, Heathrow has introduced a 'silver bullet' in the form of "mixed-mode" flying. In this way, both of the airport's runways are used for parallel take-offs and landings - as one takes off another is landing behind it, which is claimed will create 25% more capacity. It won't, however, address the fundamental problem that London needs at least another runway to cope with the expected growth of global aviation, especially coming out of the Far East. And as this week's Farnborough Air Show has demonstrated, there is no shortage of money in the aviation industry to buy more planes.

Of course I don't actually need to fly into London at all. The Eurostar is a fantastically quick service and relatively convenient to get to and from. Unfortunately, the airlines know this and have made their ticket prices very competitive to the extent that, on balance, flying is often cheaper. 

Heathrow isn't the only airport in London, either. London City is ideal if you're attending meetings in Central London, but lousy if you're destination is on the diametrically opposite quarter of the capital. Gatwick serves southern London, it's true, but that only has ONE runway, and can be as congested as Heathrow. Then there is Luton, Stanstead and even Oxford, all ridiculously prefixed "London-", in keeping with the Ryanair sense of geography (e.g. Beauvais, which it has labeled Paris-Vatry-Disney Airport, despite being 120km from Disneyland Paris and 90km to the Arc de Triomphe). Yes, I'm sure it is more convenient flying into Birmingham and then taking a train to London, but then why would I want to fly over London only to come back?

Justine Greening's pub debate essentially revolves around those who believe London - arguably still the world's financial capital and without doubt a city attracting new residents from all over the world, bringing business with them - needs a third runway at Heathrow to compete, against those who don't want any additional runways at all, lest they upset birds, newts and rare snails, and those who simply don't want more concrete and kerosene fumes blighting their back yard.

Adding runways to Stanstead and Gatwick may add some more capacity, but there will inevitably be powerful lobbies of residents of rural Essex, Sussex and Surrey respectively who'll oppose such expansion with the sort of vigour applied by the Home Guard in 1939.

The one credible alternative is 'Boris Island' - the idea sponsored by Mayor Johnson and architect Lord Norman Foster for the Thames Hub, the £20 billion, four-runway airport on reclaimed Thames Estuary land capable of handling 150 million passengers each year and integrated into a transportation infrastructure that would connect it by fast rail link rail and road to central London (in 30 minutes) and other parts of the UK.

Mapped on Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok Airport - another Foster + Partners project - the estuary airport would handle 24-hour flying operations without waking anyone up, moving 300,000 passengers each day. 

It is impressive. It is logical. But if the political - and environmental - objections now are anything to go by, it will take so long to get built, we'll all be travelling by Star Trek-style transporter beams instead. Environmentalists claim the Isle of Grain site on the Thames is home to various species of waterfowl, which the pilots' union, BALPA, has expressed concern about the risk from birdstrikes, not to mention the management of air traffic to other 'nearby' airports - including Brussels and Amsterdam.

Which brings us back to today's needs. Any new building in the south-east of England - whether an extra runway at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stanstead, or an expansion of small airports like the former Battle of Britain airfields at Biggin Hill and Manston, will take time and money. 

Global recession may have slowed down economic growth, but it is not slowing down the aviation industry and the movement of business from Asia, which means that when the economy picks up again, London could very easily be left behind...

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