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Why Heathrow is a basket case

Published in Sunday Express (London), 12 August 2007, p. 26

There are some developments and events in life that help to give you a feeling for the time of year. When the leaves are falling from the trees and it’s getting colder, Christmas cannot be far away. When the first flowers are blooming and the days are getting longer, Easter must be approaching. And when mountains of baggage pile at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 and passengers are queueing for hours, then it must be August, holiday time.

Over the past years we have become accustomed to seeing the same problems at Britain’s major airport at such peak times as the summer holidays, bank holiday weekends and Christmas. And if there has been any change at all, it is the fact that we can now experience congestion and queues of angry travellers on ordinary weekdays as well, much to the frustration of business people and holiday-makers alike.

While airports such as Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester can hardly claim to be exemplary, the problems are worst at the UK’s most important airport, Heathrow. Travelling to, from and through Heathrow has become air passengers’ purgatory – unavoidable at times but an altogether ghastly experience.

Whether it is standing in long lines in front of check-in desks, queueing for security checks, circling three times over Biggin Hill before landing, waiting at immigration or hoping that your baggage belt will eventually start moving: Heathrow’s passengers need a lot of patience. As a matter of fact, they must also have a liking for Sixties ambience and comfort, at least in the airport’s first three terminals. Pilots approaching Heathrow on international flights should probably advise their passengers to turn back their watches 40 years.

Other countries are far more advanced. Fly into Zurich, for instance, and you can be certain that your plane will get you to the gate without delay, that you can collect your luggage 10 minutes after you land and that you will be out of the airport after a quarter of an hour at most.

And Zurich is not a rare exception: try flying into Amsterdam, Lisbon, Munich or Vienna and you will find out how much more an enjoyable experience travelling by air can still be.

So why is it that other European countries have managed to keep their airports working properly, while Britain’s airports, especially Heathrow, have fallen behind? There is no simple answer to this question; instead a number of factors are coming together.

The basic problem for Heathrow is that it is permanently operating beyond the capacity for which it was originally designed. When it was built, the intended number of passengers per year was 45 million. Two runways seemed enough to deal with this. Last year, however, more than 67 million passengers travelled through Heathrow so it is no surprise that the airport is struggling to cope with this extra demand.

Judging by passenger figures, Heathrow is now the third largest airport in the world after Atlanta and Chicago. But Atlanta has five runways and Chicago six to deal with their air traffic. In fact, among the world’s 10 biggest airports, only Beijing (which caters for 48 million passengers) also has just two runways. But the Chinese are about to open a third this October as part of the preparations for their Olympic Games next year. Building it took little more than three years.

When the Olympics come to London in 2012, Heathrow will still be operating on its existing two runways. Although the Department for Transport had proposed a third runway in 2003, to be built by 2020, the public consultation has not even begun. Remembering that it took a quarter of a century to discuss, plan and build the new Terminal 5, to be opened next year, it’s probably best not to expect any progress on the new runway soon.

It’s common knowledge that airport expansions have never been popular with residents, and Heathrow’s location is far from ideal anyway. Situated to the west of the city and with its runways stretching from east to west, it means that incoming planes have to fly over much of London when winds are westerly – basically four out of five days. A new runway, desirable as it may be, will only increase noise pollution for many Londoners and lead to fierce protests.

Discussions about air travel’s environmental impact will not help, either. Although the whole of the UK’s aviation industry accounts for only 0.1 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, green pressure groups have chosen air travel as their main target. But if they really cared about carbon emissions, they should have opened their climate change camp in front of an insufficiently insulated building rather than making Heathrow flights a symbol in their crusade.

To make matters worse, Heathrow’s main London competitors – Gatwick and Stansted – are owned and operated by the same company that owns Heathrow, BAA. Because in the privatisation of BAA it was neglected to create separate companies for each airport, BAA now enjoys a virtual monopoly: it handles 92 per cent of London’s air traffic. For passengers this means that they hardly have a choice if they are flying to or from London but to travel through a BAA airport. BAA, on the other hand, has put much more emphasis on running its shopping malls than improving the operation of its airports.

As to the future, Heathrow’s long-term prospects look grim. While Terminal 5 will certainly help to improve the experience of travellers, this will not be enough. Whether and when Heathrow will eventually get its third runway remains doubtful as politicians would need the courage to deal with both residents and environmentalists. And it remains to be seen whether a break-up of BAA as a consequence of the Competition Commission’s investigation will be a silver bullet.

Decades of indecisive transport policy are now taking their toll. If we no longer want to think of August as the month of baggage piles, the Government must act on Heathrow now.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the Chief Economist of Policy Exchange.

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