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London Mayor Aims to Swap Heathrow Hub for 100,000-Home Town

July 15, 2013

London Mayor Aims to Swap Heathrow Hub for 100,000-Home Town

Aircraft stand on the tarmac at Terminal 3 of Heathrow airport in London, in 2012. Heathrow is Europe's No. 1 air hub, attracting 69.4 million passengers in 2011, while London Gatwick is the world's busiest single-runway airport, both are running close to capacity. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

London Mayor Boris Johnson said he’ll submit plans to close the U.K. capital’s Heathrow airport on the grounds that it’s too noisy and replace it with a four-runway hub in one of three locations east or north of the city.

The government could buy Heathrow for about 15 billion pounds ($22 billion) and use the 1,220-hectare (3,000 acre) site to build 100,000 homes for as many as 250,000 people, creating an entirely new borough that would help ease a national housing shortage, the mayor said today at a press conference in London.

Johnson said Europe’s busiest airport should be replaced with a hub at one of two undeveloped sites in the Thames estuary or at an expanded Stansted airport 35 miles north of London. The mayor said he’ll submit the proposals to the state-appointed Davies Commission on U.K. airport capacity later this week.

“It’s true that we have squandered decades and that other countries are now eating our lunch, but we still have time to get this right,” Johnson said at the briefing at City Hall.

Heathrow, operating close to the capacity of its two runways after attracting 69.9 million passengers in 2012, isn’t suitable for further growth because of noise, pollution and congestion issues and should be closed, he said, adding that plans for the site envisage the creation of 40,000 jobs.

Standing in the Way

“To build a third runway in the west of London would be completely the wrong thing and to build a fourth runway would be catastrophic,” Johnson said in an interview.

Residents of two west London boroughs close to Heathrow voted almost 3 to 1 in May against building a third runway at the airport. The leader of Hillingdon Council, Ray Puddifoot, a Conservative like Johnson and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, said the result was a reminder of local sentiment.

Johnson said that of the three proposals he’s recommending, one for an airport on the Isle of Grain, or Hoo peninsula, on the north Kent coast probably has “the edge.”

The site is close enough to London to provide fast access by rail but would have a minimal impact on the local population because planes could take off and land over the sea. Its location across the water from DP World Ltd. (DPW)’s new London Gateway deep-sea container port would also offer scope for a “future logistics heartland for the U.K.,” he said.

Boris Island

The mayor said that an outer-estuary site, dubbed “Boris Island” when he first proposed it, would remove all noise-pollution concerns and give unfettered operational freedom.

Expansion of single-runway Stansted airport is attractive because it entails building on existing infrastructure in an area with a relatively sparse population that also lacks the wildlife issues of the estuary options, Johnson said.

The Thames mudflats are regarded as internationally important feeding grounds for migratory wildfowl, and Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has previously dismissed the notion of development there as “utterly absurd.”

Designed by U.K. architect Norman Foster, Stansted ranks as London’s third-busiest airport behind Heathrow and Gatwick. New owner Manchester Airports Group is looking to boost traffic and leverage relationships with carriers including Gulf heavyweights Emirates and Etihad Airways, which use its Manchester base.

Johnson reckons a new hub would support 375,000 new jobs by 2050 and add 742 billion pounds to the value of U.K. goods and services. Heathrow provides about 76,000 direct jobs and is reckoned to employ the same number again in support industries.

New Destinations

A four-runway airport could quadruple the number of cities in China and South America served from London and add 50 percent more in the U.S., while restoring domestic routes to nine U.K. locations, many of which are currently served only by Amsterdam Schiphol, which boasts of being Britain’s premier hub, he said.

Heathrow Airport Ltd. (FER) will present its ideas to the Davies Commission on July 17, with the gradual migration of the existing infrastructure to the west seen as the most likely proposal after plans for an additional runway to the north met with opposition from local residents and politicians.

Such a strategy could ease the impact of noise over London by extending flight paths a few miles to the west, and might minimize building disruption by extending runways over the M25 orbital motorway and above a number of redundant reservoirs.

New aircraft will do little to improve Heathrow’s noise profile, according to Johnson. While technical developments have made models such as the Airbus SAS A380 and Boeing Co. 787 quieter, manufacturers are “reaching the limit,” he said.

Commission Chairman Howard Davies said in November that he’d examine all options for securing additional runway capacity in southeast England, including the upgrading of Heathrow.

Gatwick Pitch

In addition to long-term measures, Davies is also mulling recommendations including night flights and “mixed mode” operation, in which runways are used for take-offs and landings simultaneously, to boost capacity over the next five years.

Stewart Wingate, chief executive officer at London Gatwick, the world’s busiest single-runway airport, has also argued that his site south of the capital is ripe for development.

Still, Johnson said proposals for a high-speed rail link between Heathrow and Gatwick, dubbed “Heathwick,” wouldn’t address Britain’s aviation needs since spreading flights over two airports would fail to answer the need for a larger hub.

Cameron’s coalition government has said that no decision will be reached until after the 2015 general election. The prime minister’s party is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who are opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, and also needs to keep seats below west-London flight paths if it’s to stay in power.

Richmond’s Conservative lawmaker, Zac Goldsmith, has previously threatened to quit if growth at Heathrow is approved, forcing a special by-election vote, and Johnson himself said today he’d be prepared to protest against adding flights there.

“In 20 years’ time, when they finally get the bulldozers on site at the third runway, I will be stopping them,” he said in the interview. “I’ll be standing in the way.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kari Lundgren in London at klundgren2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net


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