Thursday, 3 November 2011

A New Airport for London? No chance...

So this is it. I have visited far too many of London's airports, and we do have a ridiculous amount of them. At the moment in London, we have five airports - Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City. Southend is reopening next year, but the fact is that London, with the world's busiest airspace, is running out of airport room.

So what is to be done. For all their environmental impact, aeroplanes provide a cheap, easy and convenient way to travel. From my perspective, they link me to the people important in my life, provide me with exotic food, allow me to explore the world, and come at a price which is cheaper and quicker than train or coach. Imagine trying to travel overland to Sri Lanka. Nope. Or take the train to Poland. Please, the cost of one train ride would pay for three air tickets! Also, they are far more flexible than the train or road. Living on an island really does restrict my travel horizons and it is the real reason why London has the world's most congested air system - it is a megacity on isolated from its immediate hinterland on the Continent.

So with that in mind, how do the plans for the new airport in the Thames stack up. Bear in mind that these are only plans, and yet two put forward seem to have an air of the possible within them. There is definitely a shift from Maplin Sands but it is in essence the same idea. Stick an airport somewhere to the east of London in the Thames Estuary and link it to the greater metropolis by any means necessary. With the completion of HS1, the possibility of linking this airport to the rest of Europe (certainly northern France) is also a possibility.

Isle of Grain Porposals.

And again for Grain.
Bors Island Proposals.
Boris Island again.

The pros are that it can be built to a huge size, operate 24 hours a day and free residents from the blight of aircraft noise by shutting Heathrow and free up valuable land in West London for a massive expansion of housing.

The cons are wildlife concerns, the logistics of changing air traffic patterns that close to Dutch and Belgium airspace, a blow to the West London economy and of course, rising sea levels.

There are arguments that it has been done before. Replacing the old airport with a new one, and yes in Hong Kong (magnificent), or Kansai airport in Osaka. But each of these cities only had one airport.

London currently has six, and here is the major mis-step that everyone seems to have missed. All the airlines and passengers will jump from Heathrow to the new island hub in a flash.

No, they won't.

The reason why Heathrow is such a popular airport is simple. It has the best ground connections of any airport I have visited in the world. Heathrow may be an absolute nightmare to navigate, but there is no simpler airport to get to on the planet. Try it. And there is no cheaper airport to get to either.

The UK has a perverse transport policy. Let private companies run pseudo monopolies and charge an exorbitant price for the privallege. As a result we have an expensive, run down and shambolicly run railway. We have a long distance coach system that has to absorb the inefficiencies of the rail system and clogged motorways because it is perversely cheaper (and often faster) to drive from one end of the country to another. And it is one of the stupid reasons why in a country as small as the UK, that domestic air travel is so popular.

The UK's perverse transport policy stops at the borders of Greater London. Here, the warm embrace of TfL takes over. Heathrow is located within Greater London, and as a result, it is connected cheaply to the rest of the city by an efficiently run tube system and to its local neighbourhoods by a plethora of buses running 24 hours a day.

Which is why it is so easy to get to Heathrow. Instead of fleecing passengers, the transport authority looks to getting people to and from the airport as quickly and cheaply as possible with a minimum of fuss and shareholding.

Do not get me wrong, I have no problem with private transport companies. But our transport policy (outside London) is neither fully privatised or fully public but a mixture of the worse of both worlds.

And this is why people choose Heathrow. Yes, the airport itself sucks, but getting to the airport is easy.

Yes, there is a fast, expensive (and fully private) option on the Heathrow Express, but it is still cheaper than getting the shoddy Stansted Express and despite its credentials, the Gatwick Express is only 55p cheaper, but infinitely slower. And there is a choice of how to get to Heathrow, as it is not isolated from the rest of the world. Gatwick, Stansted and the rest are basically islands of development in the middle of nowhere. You are forced onto a range of limited ground transport options.

So a new airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary. How easy and more importantly, how cost effective will it be to travel there? Knowing the UK's transport policy, it will be fast, and expensive. Looking at the current fares on the UK's only domestic high speed rail line, it is £27 to get from St Pancras to Ashford. And I have to get to St Pancras station itself, a mission from my location in South London.

If train tickets to Boris Island are priced similarly, a one way journey for a family of four will cost £100. Compare that to Oyster Card fares to Heathrow, and you can begin to see the major flaw with putting an airport in the middle of the Thames. Air Passengers will choose to travel to an airport that is cheaper.

Now, as the six London airports are currently owned by five different companies, do you really think that they will all roll over and let Boris Island take their business? Of course not. They will try and take Heathrow's mantle, as the most convenient airport to Central London and the cheapest airport to get to. If Heathrow closes, the owners of Gatwick would immediately expand their airport to attract the high spending business traveller and yes, intercontinental airlines would move there, not to Boris Island.

Building an airport in the Thames would probably require the closing of most if not all of London's other airports in order to force airlines and punters to use it. Something, that in a country filled with free trade and property rights, would be unthinkable.

So what are the alternatives? Continue the way things are? Of course not! Expand the airports? Of course not! Reduce air travel? Of course not! How does the circle get squared. Well, this is the way a circle gets squared. It will be interesting to see how air travel in London adapts to the future. What is probably going to happen is more of the same. Sticking tape and plaster to mend the broken system. Reopen an old airport like is happening at Southend, tweak the existing rules, and make bigger aircraft. But in the end, matters will come to a head...

Of course, the above arguments will all pale into insignificance if oil runs out :)

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