The Transport Committee of the London Assembly, which holds Mayor Boris Johnson to account, this week took evidence as part of its inquiry into airport capacity in London. Speaking alongside Virgin, business lobby group London First, and the commercial air traffic control provider NATS among others, Cait Hewitt of AEF challenged the idea that more airport capacity is needed, arguing that continually falling demand forecasts and the carbon constaints imposed by the UK’s commitment to cut emissions by 80% by 2050 both indicate that the UK already has more than enough runways.
Cait also challenged the argument made by London First that building a new runway at Heathrow would reduce emissions by eliminating the carbon generated by aircraft circling as they wait to land. These inefficiencies at Heathrow account for around 0.13 million tonnes annually – 0.69% of the 18.9 million tonnes from the airport as a whole when flight emissions are counted. A third runway, by contrast, would be likely to increase emissions by around 50%.
Do we really need a bigger hub?
On the question of whether new hub capacity was desirable, Cait pointed out that this would impose real challenges to the carbon budget given that long haul flights are disproportionately polluting. As a result, Heathrow carries a quarter of the UK’s passenger traffic, but is responsible for fully half of the emissions from UK aviation.
Assembly Member Andrew Dismore quizzed London First over whether Chinese business people and tourists, whom the UK is keen to attract, really needed to use Heathrow as opposed to any other South East airport, and was keen to disentangle arguments about terminating capacity from those about growth of hub capacity. Transport journalist Simon Calder, who focuses on consumer interests, argued that it would be foolish for London or the South East, with their geographical constraints, to try to compete with Dubai in terms of hub airport capacity and that instead we should be celebrating London’s popularity as a destination rather than a place simply to travel through.
Simon Hocquard of NATS highlighted some of the airspace and noise challenges to expansion, noting in particular that the majority of traffic to and from a Thames Estuary airport would need to fly low over central London.
AEF also submitted written evidence to the Assembly, which challenges the economic arguments for expansion as well as setting out why climate change targets suggest that no new runway capacity is justified.
Alongside the London Assembly inquiry, TfL is running a consultation on behalf of the Mayor on the tests that should be applied to the various hub airport plans, based on the assumption that more hub capacity is urgently required.