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Plans for a hub airport at Stansted, by Make Architects

The under-reported argument against increased airport capacity in London

By Mike Pollitt
28 January 2013, 13:24

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Friday’s Evening Standard reported Boris Johnson’s preference for a new hub airport at Stansted, after the House of Commons Transport Committee last week described a Thames Estuary airport as ‘not commercially viable.’

The Standard’s story encapsulates the total victory which Mayor Johnson and the airline industry have won over how this issue is framed in the media.

The debate reported most frequently is “where will the new hub be built?”

The debate not reported is “is a new hub necessary?” Yet this is surely the question which must be answered first.

Last week the London Assembly heard evidence on London’s airport capacity from the Aviation Environment Federation, an organisation focussed on the environmental impact of air travel.

They also submitted some written evidence, questioning whether the South East needs more airport capacity at all.

This was a lobbying document. But given that all we ever hear on this topic is lobbying (see pro-expansion examples in the Evening Standard here here here here here and here), the arguments which the AEF make on the other side deserve a comparable hearing.

Boiled down, the AEF’s case against increased capacity is:

Environmental

The UK should be reducing its carbon emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, in order to give the world a 50% chance of avoiding a temperature rise of 2 degrees. There’s a lot of debate about how to count planes in that national target, because planes cross borders. But while that’s being squabbled over, the planes continue to churn out CO2.

Improvements in technology, fuel, and bigger planes suggest that you could increase the number of passengers by 60% between 2005 and 2050 without breaking climate targets. But a greater increase than that, and more capacity in the South East would enable a much greater increase than that, could be very bad news for our children’s children’s chances of living in a world with polar bears.

The direct economic benefit is overstated

Says the AEF: “In the past, industry lobbying has focussed on the overall ‘value’ of aviation to the UK economy (both directly and indirectly) or the number of jobs it supports. However, in many cases these figures have been (i) hotly disputed and (ii) falling.”

The indirect economic benefit is unquantified

The great benefit of being an aviation hub is said to be “connectivity.” This is a nebulous concept, and putting a value on it is elusive.

The demand may not even be there

Says the AEF: “The latest forecasts (of passenger demand – see p7 and graph on p8) indicate that despite no new runways having in fact been built, there would be sufficient airport capacity, even in the South East, to cater for all passenger demand until nearly 2030.”

What’s all the hub chat about?

Heathrow desperately wants to be a hub and has a website devoted to telling us so. Boris Johnson wants a new hub (see the Evening Standard, passim). But why? What’s so good about a hub? The case is based on transfer passengers – on moving people through London’s airports on their way from New York to Delhi, not on them getting off and staying here. The AEF argue that the hub model is of no intrinsic benefit to the UK, and quote David Cameron writing in the Evening Standard in 2008 (how times change) for support:

“Forget for a minute that the economic value of transfer passengers is hotly disputed – after all, they often spend only the price of a cup of coffee in the UK. The real issue is the “hub” model itself, which contributed to the bankruptcy of almost every US airline and Sabena in Europe too.”

Always question the frame

The pro-expansion lobby has been successful in framing this debate as being about where the extra capacity should go, not about whether it is needed in the first place.

Perhaps they will be proved right. But that assumption should not be accepted uncritically. The fact that the airline industry wants to fly more planes doesn’t equate to a “capacity crisis”. Of course they want to fly more planes. They’re the airline industry!

It’s up to people outside that industry (looking at you, the press!), to make sure their arguments stack up. At the moment, that isn’t happening.

Take a look at the two sides’ lobbying documents for yourself:

Here’s the AEF’s full written evidence to the London Assembly.

Here’s the counter argument from the Institute of Directors, with a foreword from Boris Johnson.

Image at top: Make Architects’ impression of what a Stansted Hub might look like.

Mike Pollitt
Mike Pollitt is the editor of The Metropolis.

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