The British Government has approved adding a third runway to Heathrow Airport (CBC News story). There has been huge opposition to this, mainly from environmentalists. I believe (a) that the environmentalists’ reasoning is completely misguided, and (b) that they’re right, anyway.
Saving the environment
Jet aviation accounts for a small but still significant portion of global CO2 emissions. Fewer jet hours in the air would mean fewer emissions, so it’s easy to see why the environmentalists think preventing a new runway will help the environment.
The problem is that they’ll probably have exactly the opposite effect. The number of flights into Heathrow is limited by gate space, not runway availability — when the runways become congested, jets spend more time in holding patterns waiting for their turn to land, or more time idling on taxiways waiting for their turn to take off, and that means more, not less pollution. Ideally, a third runway will allow the same number of passengers to fly to the same number of destinations with less wasted time and less pollution. Of course, the airport will probably end up being just as congested anyway, leading to the next point.
But saving Heathrow?
The real argument is simply this: don’t reinforce failure. A third runway just doesn’t make sense, economically or otherwise. Heathrow is close to the city of London, with some of the world’s most expensive real estate. Why buy up more of it for another runway? It’s also a horribly-run airport (remember when the new terminal opened?), and a nightmare to go through as a traveler (90 minute lines for customs after an overnight flight!!!), compared to properly-run European hubs like Amsterdam’s Schipol or Paris’s Charles de Gaulle.
The benefits for the U.K. from Heathrow aren’t as big as they seem. Sure, Heathrow has an enormous amount of passenger traffic, but much of that never even leaves airport security — people just use Heathrow to change planes between North America and Asia, etc. At best, they buy a meal at one of the food fairs and leave a … uh … deposit in the loo before replaning. If you’re actually flying to London, Heathrow’s great; if you’re just changing planes, why do you need to do it there? Or more accurately, why do all of the airlines need to do it there?
A better solution
The high-value traffic at Heathrow (for the UK public) is people actually traveling to London. So — and I’m surprised that I’m writing this — the most obvious solution is just to raise the fees for using the airport until the traffic starts to decline. People actually traveling to London might not mind an extra $50 on their ticket for getting so close, especially if the crowds are smaller and they can get through the airport more easily (and if they do mind, they can fly into Gatwick or Luton instead); people just changing planes will pick a cheaper connection point.
Unfortunately, not building a runway at Heathrow is not going to prevent people from flying — it’s just going to make their flying dirtier. However, if that’s combined with some smart usage pricing that moves passengers to other airports, the flying people do will be more efficient (fewer delays), and thus, a bit cleaner.
So there’s something here for everyone — bigger fees for the airport authority, better service for passengers, fewer delays (and thus, less air pollution) for the environmentalists, and more business for currently-underused airports elsewhere. What’s not to love? No need for that new runway, not this time.