What do Istanbul, Mexico City and Beijing all have in common? Correct, they are all expanding their airports to deal with increasing global travel demand. And the UK? Well, after many decades of debate, as of today, we have a decision by the Airports Commission (a recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow) that the government may or may not follow later this year.
As a case in point, this is how the BBC describes what is currently happening in Turkey: “21 miles (35km) from Istanbul, an army of trucks and construction workers are labouring round the clock to build one of the world's biggest airports. The project was only announced two years ago by the Turkish government and yet it's due to open in 2018. Once fully complete, it will boast six runways and cater for 150 million passengers a year, travelling to 350 destinations. Or to put it another way, it will have more than twice the capacity of London Heathrow.”
Call me a cynic, but when put into comparison with what the Davies Airports Commission has recommended for the UK; a third runway to be built at Heathrow under the condition that there will never be a fourth, this sounds very much like too little, too late. So why has it taken us so long? Is it that unlike our competitors mentioned above we change government every few years? Is it because NIMBY-ism (not-in-my-backyard) attitudes and airport expansion resistance on the grounds of environmental and noise is more widespread and better organised in the UK?
What contradicts this notion is that it’s not just our non-EU neighbours that have been able to build bigger airports over the last few decades. For example, Frankfurt has more runways than Heathrow and Gatwick combined; Amsterdam Schiphol has six. Two countries that also change governments on a regular basis and have had their own share of public resistance to large transport projects (see here for Stuttgart 21).
So, will a third runway at Heathrow actually go ahead? For David Cameron himself, who “unequivocally ruled out a third runway in 2010 – saying ‘no ifs, no buts’ – it will be a political embarrassment.” Immediately after the recommendation was published, a “senior government source” was quoted saying that David Cameron is likely to oppose a major expansion of Heathrow airport because he ‘does not want to break his promise to voters’.
Nevertheless, as reported in the London Evening Standard on 29 June, top UK business leaders have warned Cameron to “end the ‘dither’ over a new runway or risk serious damage to London’s future success”. Despite having fought it out both Gatwick and Heathrow will most probably agree with the majority of business leaders: it’s time that we finally let Britain fly!