Tuesday 18 October 2011

Good points on London airport expansion

From a reader's letter in the FT:

Aircraft take off and land into wind – this reduces the ground speed required for flight and the length of runway required. In the UK, 80 per cent of winds are westerly [i.e. blow from west to east), so at Heathrow, aircraft are predominately flying low and slow over Greater London to land on the two westerly runways.

Heathrow, like most airports, has a mandatory 3 degree glide slope approach which results in a descent of 300ft per mile on the ground. This means aircraft over the centre of our capital city are descending through 1,500ft over our most populated areas.

If we consider London to be a circle, the worst possible position for an airport is therefore in the 9 o’clock position – where we have inadvertently built our biggest airport. Far better to have these low and slow aircraft landing at airports in the 12 o’clock (Luton), 3 o’clock (Thames estuary) or 6 o’clock position (Gatwick) where their approaches will not affect such large areas of population.

Aircraft accident data show that the majority of incidents occur on the approach to land; when an aircraft is at its most vulnerable, low and slow...

If you think that through, then the 3 o'clock position is not ideal either; which goes for London City and a possible Thames estuary airport. For sure, aircraft climb far more steeply after take off (and then they always seem to veer off wildly to port or starboard, I sit in my back garden watching them) than they descend before landing, but the same general east-west rule applies; aircraft would still be banking steeply over the greater London area. I'm no expert on these matters, but AFAIAA, the second most dangerous part of air travel is the take-off bit, so better safe than sorry.


dearieme said...

It's my impression that the take-off danger is concentrated in the sprint along the runway and the lift-off, so that may put Essex at risk but not London. But I'm open to correction.

P.S. When I was a boy I used to lie on my back and watch the tiny jets bound for New York. What could be safer, 300 miles from London? Then some bastard brought one down on Lockerbie. P'raps that's the main risk of an estuarial airport: a bomb set to go off as the plane gains an altitude typical of being over London? But by then it will probably, as you say, have veered.

Barman said...

Take off is actually more dangerous than landing as the aircraft really have nowhere to go in the event of an engine failure...

I was actually born in Stanwell on the southern perimeter of Heathrow and have always loved aircraft and flying. As a result I have supported expansion of Heathrow in the past.

However, any fool can see that Heathrow has reached its limit. Not only are there safety issues of flying over densely populated areas (not to mention pollution) but the whole area is already at maximum capacity. The infrastructure simply can't cope as it is...

Didn't I read in one of the enquiry reports that they'll have to lower the street lamps at Junction 4b to give sufficient clearance for outgoing aircraft...? That alone tells you all you need to know about this ludicrous plan.

Old BE said...

So what we want is an expansion of the North and South airports and a rapid transport system between the two.

Luton, Gatwick and Crossrail 3?

Bring it on.

Heathrow is also the worst place to build an airport because of the climate conditions there, it's very prone to fog. How London Airport ended up being built there seems to have been forgotten in the mists of time.

Old BE said...

Barman, in Hong Kong where the airport was plainly in a stupid place a nice long term plan was formed. Southern Britain is quite obviously not as short of space as Hong Kong but we don't seem to have any kind of plan whatsoever.

I have long wondered whether the infrastructure at Heathrow would be more suited to some kind of high tech industrial park and lots of lovely new housing.

James Higham said...

The thing is that you're not going to get away from this and there's a certain amount of NIMBYism here. The airports have to go somewhere and not 100 miles from the centre although Gatwick's far enough and they know how to charge on that rail link.

dearieme said...

We should just freeze the North Atlantic and tell everyone to skate across.

(This is an expanded version of my solution to the commuter problem.)

Mark Wadsworth said...

D, sure, stick the airport ten or twenty miles east of the city and the risks can be minimised.

B, so which airport would you expand, 12, 3 or 6 o'clock?

BE, that looks like a good plan to me. The short sightedness of UK pol's is absolutely staggering. Maybe they would be better off selling Heathrow for housing etc, problem is that most people who live in the area only live there because they work at Heathrow, altho' I suppose Gatwick is not such a terrible commute.

JH, sure, Gatwick stiff you on the train fare in and out, but that comes off the price of the ticket - why do you think that very early or very late flights to anywhere are so cheap? It's because people know that instead of a £5 train ride into town, they will have to pay £50 taxi. So they have to make the ticket price at least £45 cheaper than in the daytime.

D, nah, too expensive etc, not really practical.

Anonymous said...

@Blue Eyes,

Forgotten in the mists of time? It's all right here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_London_Heathrow_Airport

Crossrail 3 from Luton to Gatwick? You mean Thameslink?

How is the Hong Kong airport in a stupid place? By bus it's 1 hour from all densely populated parts of the town for about £3, and from the business district it takes 30 mins by train for £6 if you know what ticket to get, or £30 for taxi. Noise-wise, only 1000 villagers were affected, and another 20000 who chose to move there because the government decided to allow development of that area.

The thing with Heathrow is that foreigners seem to love going there, especially Americans going to Europe and Indians going to the US. Meanwhile, George Osborne charges £150 to depart from Heathrow in premium economy when the ticket may only be £300.

When my friends travel to Hong Kong on BA, they fly to Amsterdam, then get back on the same plane back to Heathrow for transit. It's ridiculous that LHR-HKG-LHR can cost £1000 while AMS-LHR-HKG-LHR-AMS on the same plane costs €600, plus about £50 to get to Amsterdam on a low-cost carrier, or £150 on BA which earns you more miles and status on their frequent flyer programme.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify - obviously the Air Passenger duty doesn't apply to transit passengers, who apparently made up 13% of UK airport users in 2008.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Anon, I think BE was referring to the old HK airport, not the new one. The new one's in the right place.

For the benefit of Comrade F: the new one is built on reclaimed land, i.e. they improved the land by getting rid of the water on top.

dearieme said...

Landing for your first time at the old HK airport was tremendous fun.

Old BE said...

Anon, I did in fact mean the old HK airport was in an impractical place and the new one, of course, is in a good place. Sorry for any confusion caused.

The reason that HMG loves transit passengers is that they provide lots of industry and employment in the UK which could be provided anywhere in Europe. It makes sense to encourage those Americans and Indians to stop in London because then people are employed to do all the services in London rather than Amsterdam or Paris or Madrid.

Actually airlines and related services is quite a big and successful industry in the UK which is why the pro-expansion lobby is quite powerful.

It also makes perfect sense for the domestic economy to have as good infrastructure as can be afforded and if transit passengers mean that London has better connections than competing major cities then there is a double benefit.

Mark Wadsworth said...

D, as in scary?

BE, amen to all that, and hooray for more airports in the UK, but the question was not whether (we are agreed on that and the Greenies will always be against) but where and I am now of the opinion that 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock are the best places*. 3 o'clock is sup-optimal (rules out London City) and Boris Island seems terribly far fetched to me.

Luton and Gatwick look 'about right' distance away (Stansted is not much further), seeing as we are to allow for expansion of size of greater London, if you built a new one closer in, then in a few decades you might find that the airport is back in the middle of town again.

Barman said...


I'd go for the 6 o'clock option.

Expand Gatwick (which already has good transport links) and boost the surrounding infrastructure.

Heathrow would make an excellent high-tech industrial/business park - especially if you kept a runway and allowed (limited) business-jet traffic...

Old BE said...

MW agreed with all of that. Gatwick has the advantage of being in the greenbelt so not much sprawl can approach it.

If Heathrow was turned into a kind of Docklands Development Corporation times ten then the local residents would hardly complain, almost anything would be less disruptive than what's there at the moment!

Mark Wadsworth said...

Bm, BE, good, now we are getting somewhere, we'll allow Gatwick to expand first and foremost.

However, if we want to add to London airport capacity AND reduce Heathrow capacity at the same time, then either Gatwick trebles or quadruples, or we double Gatwick and work on expanding Luton and poss. Stansted as well. I think a bit of risk spreading is always good with these things.

Barman said...


Gatwick and Stanstead + High speed rail links to the rest of the network and London.

Heathrow = High-tech business centre with 'Executive Jet' traffic only.

Job done!

Q said...

Typical of the government, they want lots of foreigners to transit the UK because of "jobs" but want their own people to stay where they are because of the "environment".

Ed said...

No, no, no. Gatwick, Luton, Stanstead, and Boris' proposed new airport are all too far away. Oxford Heathrow airport[1], apart perhaps from the fog issue, is in the perfect location. It is London that was built in the wrong place, under its flight paths. Stupid Romans. Move London elsewhere instead.

[1] Oxford Heathrow because:
* it is often quicker and/or cheaper to get to Heathrow from Oxford than it is from central London.
* Oxford airport (which is not actually in Oxford) is now London Oxford Airport, so it's only fair that we get one in return.

Bayard said...

"Stupid Romans"

I think you'll find that London was already there when the Romans turned up.

DBC Reed said...

@MW Far from being far-fetched (strange repetition)artificial islands are commonplace round the world.(There is a list on Wikipedia).The Dutch are planning to move Schipol onto an artificial island in the North Sea,for the usual straightforward reasons,though they have a tradition of creating land, which we do not.
Another advantage of an airport island in the Thames(apart from being a site for landfill dumping) is that it could be used as a bridge to take a High Speed Railway from the Channel Tunnel up the east of the country Oop North without going through London,linking Yorkshire directly to Paris.(The Parisians would just have to put up with this).This bridge could probably double as a barrage and raised motorway doing no end of good,generating electricity and
turning the Estuary into a freshwater lagoon ,with land reclaimed for building houses.These are just some of the ideas I have vouchsafed to an indifferent ,nay hostile nation.Their loss obviously.
In fact a major report,(I think Buchanan) concluded many years ago that a new airport should be sited in the Thames Estuary at Foulness/Maplin.
This was cancelled by Labour at an advanced stage of planning because of a short term financial crisis/flap.