Heathrow: The whirlpool of uncertainty is playing to the aviation industry’s advantage

AirportWatch’s John Stewart reports on the latest news in the debate on aviation in the south east, following reports the Heathrow third runway is back on.

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John Stewart is the chair of AirportWatch

The government’s sudden decision last week to postpone consultation on its draft aviation strategy has opened a hole which has been filled by lobbyists spreading rumour and counter rumour.

HeathrowOn Sunday both the Observer and the Independent on Sunday ran, somewhat thinly-sourced, front page stories implying a third runway at Heathrow is back on the government’s agenda.

This whirlpool of uncertainty is playing to the aviation industry’s advantage.

It is allowing it to create a climate of opinion that extra airport capacity is essential for a competitive economy; that a third runway at Heathrow has growing support amongst government ministers who regret their decision to scrap it in 2010.

With no policy document to respond to, the industry doesn’t feel obliged to come up with hard facts and figures. The campaign is one of innuendo, off-the-record briefings, private lunches and advertising slogans.

It is typified by the BAA adverts plastered across the London underground. MPs have told me they cannot remember such a sustained campaign from any industry.

It is ironic the transport secretary at this time is Justine Greening who, during the campaign against the third runway, referred to BAA as operating in a fact-free zone. Of course, the industry is aiming beyond Greening.

George Osborne is a prime target. This week’s New Statesman carried an article on how he is impressed by the pleas of business people in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher was dazzled by the military top brass.

And Osborne has shifted the Government position.


See also:

Budget 2012: Will the coalition u-turn on its ‘no new runways’ pledge? 21 Mar 2012

Even if people prefer a 3rd runway to Boris Island, doesn’t mean they like either 29 Feb 2012

Expensive and ineffective: Boris Johnson’s island airport (even Tories think so) 21 Nov 2011

Aviation industry turn on Greening over her opposition to third runway 17 Oct 2011

Boris’s airport arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny 18 Mar 2011


In his autumn statement, the chancellor signalled that new runways at Stansted and Gatwick were a possibility when he pledged the government would “explore all options for maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status, with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow”.

That is a clear change from the 2010 pledge of no new runways in the South East.

Where there is no indication of even a hint of a shift is over expansion at Heathrow.  Today Boris Johnson has reaffirmed his opposition to it. Of course, Boris has an island to promote but his views on Heathrow are likely to reflect those of senior conservatives.

There is an acceptance a third runway at Heathrow would not be politically feasible. Justine Greening would resign her post. Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith would resign as an MP. The Conservatives would lose votes and seats across a wide area.

But, beyond, it seems all political parties accept the reality: the Heathrow battle has been fought – the question of the third runway has been settled.

When the draft consultation aviation strategy does finally emerge, the debate will be around whether extra capacity, away from Heathrow, is required to maintain the UK’s connectivity with the rest of the world. London continues to be the best-connected city in the world (pdf).

The debate will start to look forward to a world of more expensive oil; of ever-tighter climate targets; of increasing using of video-conferencing by business; and of the development of new airports, with their own hubs, in the fast-developing economies of the Global South.

The UK aviation industry’s current campaign for more airport capacity has relied on the slogans of the last century. It needs to find slogans and arguments to address the realities of the 21st century.


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21 Responses to “Heathrow: The whirlpool of uncertainty is playing to the aviation industry’s advantage”

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