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Britain Told To Consider Expanding Heathrow Or Gatwick Airports

posted 17 Dec 2013, 14:36 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 17 Dec 2013, 14:36 ]

British government advisory body recommends building a new runway at one of London's two biggest airports.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UNITED KINGDOM (DECEMBER 17, 2013) (ITN) - Britain should consider building a new runway at one of London's two biggest airports -Heathrow and Gatwick - to address a capacity crunch that economists suggest could slow economic growth, a government advisory body said on Tuesday (December 17).

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The recommendations, which are not binding and subject to further revision, are likely to stir up a political debate about how to deal with what will be one of the country's biggest infrastructure projects this century.

Politicians and business leaders agree that Britain needs new runways to remain economically competitive. But the idea of building extra capacity in London is unpopular with many voters who worry about aircraft noise, pollution and safety.

Passions ran high during Britain's last 2010 election over a possible expansion at Heathrow, with supporters of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in west London helping make sure the now ruling coalition dropped the plans.

With no Commission decision until after a general election in May next year, the Conservative-led coalition government has been careful not to favour any option and most politicians are keen to avoid being dragged into the emotive debate.

In a statement, the Airports Commission said the capacity challenge would become critical without action being taken and recommended the provision of an additional runway by 2030.

In a report, the Commission shortlisted three proposals, two of which were to expand Britain's biggest airport, Heathrow. As well as building a new runway, the airport could also have one of its runways extended, the report said.

On the case for expanding Heathrow Howard Davies, the chair of the Commission, said:

"The market is telling us that Heathrow is constrained. It's operating at more or less full capacity. There are a lot of airline who want to develop new routes from Heathrow, routes which would be economically significant and therefore you simply have to answer the question why could you not develop at Heathrow."

Davies said Gatwick had come back into contention as the timescale considered in the report went beyond a previous commitment not to undertake further development at the airport before 2019.

"The airport is now under separate ownership, is ambitious and is developing new routes, has got long haul routes etc. The government are prepared to spend some money to improve the surface transport access to Gatwick so it clearly comes into consideration now in a way that it didn't in the past," said Davies.

An idea to build a new airport on the Isle of Grain to the east of London should also remain an option, the report said. But it did not formally add it to its shortlist, saying it would only decide whether to include it before the end of the year.

The Commission must make its final proposals on how and where to expand airport capacity by the summer of 2015.

Heathrow's strong showing on the list represents a turnaround from three years ago when the two-party coalition scrapped plans to expand the airport, overturning the previous government's decision to go ahead with a third runway there.

London's high-profile mayor Boris Johnson, who has been tipped as a possible rival to Prime Minister David Cameron, is opposed to the expansion of Heathrow and supports the building of a new airport to the east of London.

One of his proposals, a new airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary, dubbed "Boris Island", failed to make the Commission's shortlist, as did a plan to expand London's third-busiest airport, Stansted.

"I don't believe that Heathrow runway three is either practicable or deliverable. It is a sham, a snare and a delusion. It should be dropped and they should urgently consider what I think is a far better alternative which is a new, environmentally friendly hub airport which will satisfy our economic needs and our needs compete globally," said Johnson.

Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe, the third busiest globally and a hub for international flights. But its location near residential areas makes its expansion a toxic issue for local voters, green groups and the Conservatives' coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

"The noise and pollution its already bad around here now. I heard Davis on the TV this morning saying about how planes are getting quieter well he wants to try living here sometimes and he'll find out how quiet they really are. I mean I'm woken up at five most mornings and so is everyone else around here," said one local resident.

Different expansion plans for airport capacity around London have been on and off the table since the 1970s, but with demand for air travel expected to double in Britain to 300 million passengers per year by 2030, the crunch is coming to a head.

Britain's business association, the CBI, said in a statement that urgent action was needed from the government when the Commission's final recommendations were made in 2015.

The group is one of many who say London's airport capacity must be increased to boost trade and routes to developing markets such as China to maintain London's lead over rival European airports as an international hub.

Paris's main airport has four runways, while Amsterdam's has five compared to Heathrow's two. The airport, which is west of London, is partially owned by Spain's Ferrovial.

The Commission said that by 2050, the capital would need a second runway in addition to the one it will recommend to be built, and said the Stansted proposal could be an option for that.