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Calls for Heathrow growth fail to take account of key noise and climate objections

Two reports have been published this week calling for expansion of operations at Heathrow.

London First, a business lobby group, has called on the Airports Commission to recommend the introduction of ‘mixed mode’ operations at the airport, which would end the practice of runway alternation whereby residents under the flightpath benefit significantly from half a day’s respite from aircraft noise. The report argues for an increase in Heathrow services in order to serve the needs of business travellers and cites work by the consultancy Frontier Economics, commissioned by Heathrow Airport, in support of this argument.

But the argument made by Frontier Economics – that the UK economy could lose out on as much as £14 billion worth of trade if Heathrow is not expanded – relies on an unproven assumption that provision of airport capacity generates trade rather than the relationship working in the opposite direction. As consultants CE Delft noted in a recent report, “Frontier Economics implies a causation here which to date no scientific study has been able to show (as indeed they themselves acknowledge reluctantly on page 38 of the report, right before they repeat their earlier claim). There is indeed a correlation between connectivity and trade, but the causation might run backwards (trade drives connectivity) or some third factor (population growth) might drive both trade and connectivity.”

London First also argues that the number of people exposed to significant noise at Heathrow has reduced over time with the introduction of quieter aircraft. But the statement relies on a noise metric  – the 57 Leq contour – that no longer has credibility as the sole indicator of community annoyance. Numerous studies indicate that people’s sensitivity to aircraft noise as measured in Leq has increased significantly over time, possibly because barely-perceptible reductions in the noise from individual planes can allow for disproportionately large increases in the number of aircraft operating without affecting overall noise exposure levels.

Heathrow is also the focus of a report published today by the Transport Committee of MPs, which focuses on the longer term and calls for an additional runway or runways at the airport. The Committee places particular emphasis on Heathrow’s role as a hub; a contentious topic on which the aviation industry is divided, and which will form the focus of a forthcoming paper from the Airports Commission.

The committee quotes the conclusion of the independent Committee on Climate Change in 2009 that an increase in air transport movements of 55% or a 60% increase in passenger numbers could, given forecast technological improvements, be compatible with returning UK aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050. The Transport Committee uses this finding to dismiss the argument that Heathrow expansion could lead to a breach of climate change commitments. But the report fails to note that even if no new runways were built between now and 2050, official forecasts suggest that demand at other airports will grow such that aviation emissions will exceed the level of the climate target by a wide margin. See http://www.aef.org.uk/?p=1520.

The London First report is on their website; or download a copy from ours here.

The Transport Committee’s report is on the their website, or download it from ours.