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The impact and consequences of London Heathrow airport’s third runway expansion

 (Photo: Heathrow Image Library)
(Photo: Heathrow Image Library)

London’s flagship Heathrow airport is on the verge of expansion with plans being laid out to build a third runway. This comes in after the UK parliament voted for it in an overwhelming majority a couple of weeks before, with it securing the backing of 415 MPs versus 119 MPs who were against it.

Regardless of this, the expansion idea has been met with severe censure, as protests erupted in the House of Commons even during the voting process. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has been vociferous against the expansion and announced that he would be pursuing legal action against the decision.

The third runway campaign has been unpopular with the Londoners, as studies suggest that the project would lead to excessive noise levels which could end up affecting a million households in its vicinity – with an estimated 2.2 million people overall bearing the brunt. Also as the expansion signals more incoming traffic to Heathrow, it would further deteriorate the already worse off air quality in the city.

The Civil Aviation Authority documents reveal that the government believes the expansion would roughly impact 973,000 families around the airport in terms of noise and air quality by 2050. Then again, the 673,800 households that are currently affected by the two existing runways are expected to experience lesser noise post the third runway construction, bringing the net increase to about 300,000 households.

However, ministers in support of the expansion argue that this is scaremongering, as they contend that the future aircrafts would be much quieter compared to the ones that exist today. The Department for Transport has also insisted that the expansion budget does consider adequate compensation to the community around the airport, which includes noise insulation for buildings and a community compensation fund worth up to £50 million a year.

“We stand by our commitment to expand Heathrow while reducing the number of people affected by noise, compared to today. We are currently consulting with our local communities on airspace modernization, which will redesign how planes fly over Heathrow in coming years,” said a Heathrow spokesperson in a statement. “Any future modeling of noise impacts must take into account these changes, as well as the stringent mitigation and insulation  plans Heathrow will put in place, which will continue to reduce the number of people affected by our operations.”

In the midst of this debate, carriers who operate out of Heathrow have woes of their own. Various airlines have raised their concern to the Parliament on the £14.3 billion budget being cited by Heathrow, calling it to be grossly inadequate, and that it would not be possible for the airport to adhere to the budget and the deadlines as mentioned.

The airline executives believe that the discussion has lacked clarity and transparency, and argue that it is essential for the government to get concrete assurances from the airport before the expansion is flagged off. The problem of going through with a construction project that is underquoted, is that the weight of the excess would eventually fall on the shoulders of the airline carriers – via higher landing charges.

The expansion is said to be privately funded by Heathrow, and the regulations set in place would mean that the airport would have no incentive to reduce spending, as more the infrastructural cost, the more it could draw from carriers as “fees.” And at the end of the day, carriers would subsequently be forced to transfer the financial load on the consumers, who could see a drastic increase in air ticket prices.

On a parallel thought, the Gatwick airport, situated 40 miles from Heathrow, is being suggested as an alternative to expansion as it still operates on a single runway and is considered the second busiest single runway airport in the world, only after India’s Mumbai airport. And as Gatwick is located further away from London’s city center compared to Heathrow, it would help in alleviating the environmental and noise level impact on people.

But overall, the third runway at Heathrow would be welcome in the perspective of the freight industry, which would be facing the heat after Brexit officially hits by March next year. Analysts have predicted that Brexit would create a logistical nightmare to the UK, as the country would face EU customs laws and additional checks on its containers at entry and exit in EU transport hubs. For instance, a bulk of the UK imports make its way into the country after reaching the port of Rotterdam – a situation would no longer be feasible post-Brexit.

Though the expansion of Heathrow would not directly help with the maritime logistical slowdown, one can hope that it would pave the way for increasing air freight volumes. What gives credence to this is the fact that Heathrow has remained the UK’s busiest cargo port by value, as it transports more freight than the ports of Felixstowe, Southampton, and Liverpool. An expansion in Heathrow would ultimately be good for the country’s economy, and as it appears in the airport’s slogan, it would only mean “more jobs and more growth.”

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