LAST year, when Britain’s government was being lobbied to revive controversial plans to expand Heathrow airport, ministers dodged the issue using the time-honoured technique of setting up a committee of grandees. Further heat was taken out of the debate when the Department for Transport downgraded its forecasts for passenger growth. Having predicted just before the financial crisis that 495m passengers a year would want to use Britain’s airports by 2030, it now puts the potential demand by then at just 320m. But that is still 100m more than passed through British airports last year. Even by the latest forecasts, London’s five airports will have to turn away about 13m passengers a year by 2030, rising to 46m in 2040 and 92m in 2050. Some scope exists for them to switch to regional airports but the potential for lost growth, as business trips are skipped and foreign tourists give London a miss, is great.
Although a fix for London’s airport crunch is a little less urgent than it seemed last year, more capacity needs to be built. Heathrow, the main international hub, handled 70m passengers last year, and is operating beyond all sensible limits to its capacity. The slightest setback can cause extensive cancellations and delays.
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The capital’s other airports, Stansted especially, have some spare capacity, but passengers and airlines prefer Heathrow because of its many flight connections and better links to central London. And the other airports’ spare room will have been used up by the late 2020s. This is the earliest it would take to build any new runways, given the difficulty of getting planning permission for big projects.
Stuck in a holding pattern
On coming to power in 2010 the coalition government scrapped a plan,...
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