One of my photos

Runway Three

January 16th, 2006 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

I found this story in today’s G2 more than a bit depressing. Living in another airport town it is of some relevance to me as well.

I’ll be honest, I had never heard of the village of Sipson. I just assumed the growth of Brentford, Slough and Uxbridge had resulted in urban sprawl around most of Heathrow. Being hemmed in by the M4, the Heathrow Spur and the airport it does not look like an ideal place to live on the face of it, but people do get attached to their homes – when the vilest slums are pulled down there is always one old lady who has to be forcibly removed and installed reluctantly into a far superior council house.

The whole thing is like a gigantic version of the prisoner’s dilemma, working on a national and international scale.

Everyone recognises that the demand for more runways follows the demand for more flights, and specifically more cheap flights. If all the airlines stopped massively discounted fares it might put a brake on demand, but no airline in their right mind would do it unilaterally for fear of losing business to all their rivals. If they all did it, their relative positions would remain, they might have fewer passengers but they could conceivably be more profitable ones.

So airlines putting a stop to discounting can be discounted. They won’t do it unless they are told to.

Alternatively, the government could force the issue by removing the subsidies which the aviation industry enjoys, particularly on fuel duties, but this results in the same considerations at an international level. These subsidies and tax-breaks are global, and no country is going to remove them unilaterally: it would just see airlines move elsewhere. With Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt all waiting to take as much business from Heathrow and Gatwick as they can, and so many jobs dependent on aviation, the government would be foolish to remove subsidies.

Of course we, the consumers, could all do it ourselves. All we would have to do is fly less often. As the article says it is all down to “our insatiable appetite for cheap foreign travel” so basically its our fault. The trouble is that this fails due to the same sort of mentality that affects traffic congestion (everyone agrees that life would be better if more people travelled by public transport, as long as they can continue using their car).

Its one of those cases where lots of individual actions can add up to make a difference, even if each one is insignificant in itself. If those who fly three or four times a year cut it down to twice, or if those who fly every year flew every other year instead the impact would be enormous. That won’t happen. We already know that we could improve the environment by cutting out aerosols, by turning appliances off instead of putting them on standby and similar measures, but there is still the tendancy to say “ah yes, but leaving my TV on standby tonight is such a tiny amount of power it won’t be noticed.”

The power to slow down airport growth is with us all – we just have to stop flying so much – but there is still no connection in the collective mind between cause and effect. Here in Crawley, two of the most vociferous campaigners against the expansion of Gatwick take at least three holidays a year. If they do that they can hardly deny everybody else’s right to do the same, and it is because everybody else does the same that there is such pressure to build new runways.

The article says “Heathrow’s R3 may simply represent the unfeeling sweep of market forces” and that sounds about right. Those campaigners who are attacking the causes of the market forces are the ones with the right idea, but while the majority of the population does not live next to an airport those market forces are going to remain.

On top of that, we all like our fresh food flown in from around the world, and our other foreign treats, but while a general reduction in aviation would be a boost to British agriculture, manufacturing and tourism if it was only the UK reducing we would start to see the effects on our economy. The ultimate irony is, of course, that it is only as a result of our strong economy and its beneficial effect on the income and wealth of a large chunk of the population that we have this huge demand for travel in the first place.

A more superficial observation on the whole thing: this is the first time I have seen the Heathrow proposals referred to as “R3”. Once a snappy name like R3 or T6 gets into use the whole thing is inevitable.

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