The Heathrow row: to expand or not?

After Paris, London is the leading destination from Nice and we have the choice of four London airports to fly into on scheduled routes: London City, Gatwick, Luton and Heathrow. Depending on your final destination and factoring in the time and cost of land travel after arrival or your connection to another internal or international flight, you may find any one of these airports more convenient.  London's main hub is Heathrow and if your final destination is to the northwest of London or a connecting international flight, that's where you'll probably want to enter the UK from Nice.

Heathrow RowBut LHR (as written on your luggage tag) is already pushing its 2 runways to 98% capacity. Every day, 1300 flights land or take off – an average of one every 70 seconds. Heathrow is closed from 23h30 to 04h30 for runway maintenance and for juggling planes around to their morning stands so these hours are not available for flight movements.

Even regular occurrences like an aircraft not evacuating the runway quickly enough after landing or a "go around" can back up the queue of flights waiting to land. That's why your pilot sometimes "slams on the brakes" as soon as the wheels touch the tarmac at Heathrow. He's under pressure from the tower to get out of the way.  All it takes is bad weather over Hounslow or one of its 4 holding stacks for capacity to be so stretched that a few flights must be delayed, cancelled or diverted.

Something has to be done and that something is either to expand Heathrow or build a replacement hub for London. Initially mayor Boris Johnson tabled the idea of a whole new hub in the Thames Estuary (which was quickly dubbed "Boris Island").

Air industry experts were far from convinced. Construction in the marshy environment would be prohibitively expensive. There is no existing road and rail infrastructure so financial concerns would drive up landing charges to extents the market for air travel just couldn't justify.  Then there's the question of disrupting approach procedures to mainland European airports. NATS chief executive Richard Deacon calls the Estuary "the very worst spot" in Europe for a busy hub. Flightpath congestion is one of his main concerns and he points out that the spot is on the natural flightpath to several international airports including Amsterdam. Fuel efficiency would be severely affected as flights enter holding patterns and there's the real risk of daily "traffic jams in the sky."

Above all there are safety concerns around Boris's plan. The Thames Estuary is a stop off for migratory birds and these habits can't be changed from one year to the next. Many pilots believe that bird strikes would be a real risk for many years until the birds clear off to more sedate places. The Reporter has spoken to one pilot who, as a family man, would flatly refuse to fly there, "no matter how much they paid me."

Only fools never change their minds and – in spite of his reputation for madcap antics – Boris is no fool. Just as he has done on the ludicrous HS2 rail project, Boris  wisely u-turned and now prefers additional runways at Heathrow instead as the best of only bad options possible. He's right.

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