Thursday, January 15, 2009



Plane flying over homes near Heathrow

Ministers are due to announce government approval for a third runway at London's Heathrow Airport.

What is being proposed?

The plan is for a new runway, allowing the annual number of take-offs and landings to increase to 605,000 by 2020 and 720,000 by 2030 - up from 480,000 today. A new terminal, capable of handling 35 million passengers per year, would serve long and short-haul services. The plans may also include new high-speed rail links from the airport. A new tunnel would allow the A4 to pass under taxiways between the airport and the new runway. The M4 spur to the airport would also have to be moved and hard shoulders on the most congested motorways would be opened up to be used during peak times.

Will it fit on the existing airport site?

No. The development would result in the loss of around 700 homes, including the entire community of Sipson and Heathrow Primary School.

What about 'mixed mode' use of runways?

It has been proposed that, as an interim measure, the existing two runways be used for both take-offs and landings - known as "mixed mode". Currently the "alternation" method sees planes landing at one runway until 3pm and then on the other one for the rest of the day to give residents near each runway half a day's break from noise. This could eventually allow 60,000 more flights a year by 2015. There would also be an end to the Cranford agreement, which restricts planes taking off over Cranford, to the east of the runway. Cranford would get more flights, while parts of Feltham and Windsor would get less. The consultation documents stated that, if the existing runways were turned over to the "full mixed mode" method by 2015, 20 schools near Heathrow would experience noise levels at or above 63 decibels - currently it is 14 schools. It would also get noisier in Egham, Putney and Barnes, but quieter in Windsor, Slough and Twickenham.

Who is for it?

The government has said it supports expansion in principle, subject to it meeting the EU targets. Airport operator BAA and British Airways say a third runway is "critical", particularly given the tough economic climate and many unions back it. Many businesses also support expansion - the Confederation of British Industry says the UK needs direct access to "economic powerhouses" like China and India.

Who is against it?

Many environmental groups and residents who live around the airport are strongly opposed to further expansion due to fears about increased noise and air pollution and congestion. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also oppose the third runway and the government faces a backbench rebellion, last year 40 Labour MPs backed calls to put it to a Commons vote - they said the government relied too much on data from Heathrow owner BAA in assessing the case for expansion.

Why does industry want it?

The Future Heathrow pro-expansion group, made up of businesses, trade unions and aviation firms, says a third runway is vital for trade and tourism, and to secure the future of an airport employing 72,000 people. Business groups fear Heathrow is losing ground to rival European airports in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam which will each have four runways by 2012.

What do opponents say?

Green campaigners have been backed by the Environment Agency, which said a new runway would fail EU pollution limits because of unsafe nitrogen dioxide levels. Groups such as the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN) and the No Third Runway Action Group have protested against the proposal on the grounds of excessive noise and because it will destroy communities. The 2M group, an alliance of 12 local authorities, claims the economic benefits are overstated and the environmental costs ignored. It says carbon emissions will double by 2050 if the government's assumptions about the development of new, environmentally-friendly aircraft prove incorrect.

How can environmental targets be met?

There will be a strict emissions framework to cut down on noise and air pollution, and new travel slots will only be used by the most modern planes that are quieter and better for air quality. Analysis outlined in last year's consultation says three runways could be operated by 2020 and meet air quality limits - thanks to developments like cleaner aircraft engines, and more twin-engine rather than four engine aircraft.

What happens next?

Once MPs are informed of the government's decision there be the chance to grill ministers about it - but it seems unlikely there will be a vote on whether or not the third runway is built. The airport operator would then have to draw up its plans and go to a planning inquiry. This inquiry will be held under new laws designed to speed up the process, but it is still likely to be a long and complex process. The plans are likely to face a legal challenge from environmental campaigners or local authorities, possibly based on a potential breach of EU pollution limits. London mayor Boris Johnson has indicated he may support a legal challenge. Construction would be likely to start in about 2015 and, it is not expected it to be built until 2019/20. If Labour loses power at the next election it looks like it won't go ahead anyway, as both the Conservatives and Lib Dems oppose the runway and say they would scrap the project.

What are the alternatives?

The Conservatives want to scrap the plans and instead back a £15.6bn into a high-speed rail link between London's St Pancras, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. They claim it could cut Heathrow flights by 66,000 per year. The Liberal Democrats reject the idea of any airport expansion in south-east England. They also favour high-speed rail links. Mayor of London Boris Johnson has suggested that a 24-hour airport could be created on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary, possibly replacing Heathrow altogether.



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