Monday, January 21, 2013
Politicians are to blame for Heathrow being unable to cope with snow
The news the last few days in the UK has been focused on the reaction of much of the country to what is really a fairly average dump of snow, albeit the first proper snow this winter. Yes, some roads have been slow, yes some railways have been a bit slow too, and there have been some delays at airports across the country. Most people accept this to be normal, which is true. There needs to be more care in such conditions, and it is how people in colder climates manage this time of year.
However, the outrage has been focused on the one piece of transport infrastructure that the media has portrayed as being unable to cope, but which is actually coping the best it possibly could under the circumstances - Heathrow Airport.
Heathrow's owners, BAA (soon to drop that name), invested £50 million in equipment to clear snow from runways, taxiways and stands, and the airport has been accomplishing this successfully. It is just as well equipped as airports in continental Europe, its problem is capacity.
No other airport in Europe runs at 98-99% capacity. With low clouds, falling snow (which was the case yesterday) and low visibility, the key need is for planes to have a far greater following distance for takeoffs and landings, to build in a greater safety factor. The problem for Heathrow is that its landing and takeoff slots are at tiny intervals of around 1-3 minutes (depending on aircraft type). Simply increasing these by another minute cuts a lot of slots out, so suddenly Heathrow faces knocking 10-20% of flights out just so the remainder can operate safely.
You can do this at Stansted, where the airport is only running at less than 60% capacity (a few delays at some busy times, but that's it). At Gatwick, which is operating at around 90% capacity, it can just manage. Of course Schiphol, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt all have spare capacity as well, but Heathrow doesn't have it.
The reason is politics.
Heathrow's owners have long wanted to build a third runway, but politicians stuck their noses into it because of the concern of more flights over properties of people who live under flightpaths. The land for the runway has mostly been owned by BAA for some time and at no point has BAA wanted a penny of taxpayers' money to pay for it - it is commercially viable in its own right (A point largely ignored by the media, which treats infrastructure spending by the private and public sector as if it has the same impact, whereas only the latter is paid for by everyone). However, the last government had inquiries and investigations into it for so long that approval was only given a year before the election.
The Conservative Party, supposedly a party of business, saw a chance to look Green, as part of David Cameron's efforts to "modernise" the party - code for embracing everything that looked new and trendy and "nice" to attract more voters, but actually included embracing the avowedly anti-growth agenda of the environmental movement. So he promised no third runway at Heathrow Airport. He's in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a party that warmly embraced that philosophy years ago. Labour has since seen a chance to win seats in west London, so has jumped on the anti-runway bandwagon.
So that it be. Whilst there is talk about airport capacity, and all sorts of lunatic ideas from a huge taxpayer funded airport at the Thames Estuary (talk of it being commercially funded is laughable), to using other airports with ample capacity that airlines aren't so keen on, there is a new inquiry looking at options, conveniently timed to report back after the next election, in two and a half years' time.
Heathrow Airport sits and gets jammed up with cancelled flights and upset people, few of whom will point the finger at politicians for their plight, but they should. They should be blaming Nick Clegg, Zac Goldsmith, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and others who have hopped on this bandwagon. You see they just wanted the votes of people who chose to live under the flightpath of Europe's busiest airport.
If Heathrow had a third runway, there would be more flights, no doubt, but the airport would probably be working at more like 75%-80% capacity, so would be unlikely to need to cancel flights in the conditions seen lately, of course in particularly heavy snow conditions it would close, like any airport must do.
So if you're stuck because of cancelled flights at Heathrow, recognise that BAA is not to blame, British Airways and the other airlines are not to blame, it's the politicians who consistently get in the way of a profitable privately owned business from expanding its asset to meet the demands of its customers.