Estuary airport good if Heathrow goes

Hong Kong Airport; photo by Wylkie Chan via Wikipedia, licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenseImagine you are on an airliner and due to land shortly, and you have the window seat for the view. But there is no being held in a stack, no seemingly endless circling while below you see houses of all the people whose lives are blighted by aircraft noise, no seeing all sorts of famous landmarks of the city. Instead, you suddenly notice a ship on the sea beneath you, and think just how large it looks – the plane must be flying rather low. Just at that moment, before you realise what is happening, the plane is touching down on the runway, at the airport you didn’t even see approaching.

This scenario isn’t entirely make believe, but is the experience of millions of passengers per year landing at Hong Kong’s international airport. The airport, opened in 1998 and designed by Britain’s own Norman Foster, is situated on a man-made island. It replaced an old airport that was hemmed in at the centre of the city, with no room for expansion, and with scary approaches over densely populated areas.

The UK government this week announced that they would be considering a number of schemes to expand airport capacity. In 2010, they ruled out building a new runway and terminal at Heathrow Airport. One of the options they are looking at is building a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, possibly at least partially on reclaimed land.

Plane landing at Heathrow Airport; photo by Adrian Pingstone, public domainHeathrow Airport is becoming a national disgrace. It is at capacity, as the airlines will be quick to tell you, but the last thing we need is expansion of Heathrow. The airport is in the wrong place, among residential areas of London. Any expansion means demolishing hundreds of homes and blighting thousands more. The noise and pollution for people in the area is horrendous, and transport links congested. With perhaps the exception of the most recent Terminal 5, the terminals are rather scruffy and tired, and the central bus and rail stations a bit run-down. The whole huge, sprawling site is a mess. The airport is hardly the best first impression to present to foreign visitors.

There are currently two main proposals for estuary airports. One has been dubbed “Boris Island” after the London mayor. But the other, located on the Isle of Grain, is by none other than Norman Foster. This detailed proposal also includes a new Thames Barrier to protect London from flooding and produce renewable electricity, as well as new transport links. An airport in such a location could see passengers travelling into central London as quickly as from Heathrow (from where getting into London fast presently means taking the world’s most expensive train) yet aircraft taking off or landing at the new airport would do so over the sea, not over people’s homes. There would be much more capacity, so the airport could be a major European hub airport, and the whole site could be planned carefully from the start, rather than just develop almost by accident from a small military airfield.

There would certainly be challenges in constructing an airport in that location, and these have been much discussed in the press this week. But this is the 21st century, and problems can be overcome by engineering solutions, unlike the problem of an airport in the middle of a densely populated city with no room for expansion.

But there is one important principle that I believe must be stuck to if an estuary airport were to be built: Heathrow Airport must be closed down. We don’t need an additional airport, we just need to replace the current one with a better one. The owners of Heathrow, Spanish-owned BAA, have said that closing Heathrow would be a disaster because it employs 10,000s of people. They seem to assume that none of the staff would transfer to the new airport, and that none of the businesses servicing Heathrow would move either, which doesn’t quite seem a valid assumption. A larger airport would support even more jobs. Yet there are also huge gains to be made from demolishing the terminals and digging up the tarmac. Heathrow occupies a site the size of a medium-sized town. The mind boggles at the thought of how much the land would be worth to developers in that location in west London, particularly as it would no longer be blighted by being close to a major airport. The number of jobs it would create could be phenomenal, and new housing would relieve the serious shortage in the capital. The sale of the land would surely pay for the new airport (although those in the know seem to think foreign investors would pay for it anyway).

The opportunity to create a whole new suburb of London is even more exciting than the opportunity to create an airport the country could be proud of. One day “Heathrow” could be a the name of the newest and most desirable part of London, rather than shorthand for the place people like to spend as little time as possible.

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