Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When two passions collide

It was interesting to see the feature on BBC1's Inside Out programme yesterday evening on UK airport development with the effervescent Mike Dilger reporting on the tabled proposal for the Isle of Grain (IoG) hub airport system on the North Kent Marshes.  I worked in Airport Development for four years (which in no way makes me an expert on such matters), but this emotive and divisive political hot potato does bring together two of my passions in life into a head-on collision course, birds and civil aviation.

So my confession, before I was a 'proper' birder, I was a 'proper' plane spotter.  I remember sitting as a ten year old on the old Queen's Building at Heathrow Airport  (where today's new Terminal Two is located) watching Concorde take-off, the diagnostic roar of four after-burning Rolls Royce Olympus engines thrusting the delta wings of these evocative aircraft on another return trip to the Big Apple.  How civil aviation has changed - cleaner, quieter, aircraft arguably possessing less character than their predecessors, but an industry investing heavily into making these aircraft greener than ever before.  I applaud the airframe and engine manufacturers for continuing to extend their environmental targets.

The Old Queens Building now demolished (oh the memories)

A stunning aircraft (oh the memories)

The problem is that globally, in spite of the world's political and social problems, there is a widening of the middle social classes, a demographic with disposable income.  The middle classes (defined as people earning between $2 and $13 a day) trebled in number between 1990 and 2005 in developing Asia to 1.5 billion; they rose from 277m in Latin America to 362m over the same period; and in sub-Saharan Africa from 117m to 197m (Economist).

This has exposed an increasing global population to the opportunities for air travel and coupled with the growth of the 'low-cost' industry, more people are flying.  This is a good thing.  UK airports alone have seen the total number of terminal passengers increase by 77% between 1995 and 2013 (CAA).

The UK's hub airport Heathrow is at a choke-point and a solution needs to be found to alleviate the capacity asphyxiation that our primary air passenger gateway is currently experiencing.  Expanding Heathrow does not appear to be a popular option, too much collateral damage, too many residents already exposed to aviation related noise (both air and surface access), a new runway may be a short-term solution (at the expense of Sipson and Harmondsworth) but would double the number of residents exposed to aircraft noise and would continue to struggle with future expansion limitations.  Gatwick, the other airport shortlisted in the Davies Commission for a second runway appears to lack the prestige that Heathrow currently possesses and is not viable as an option for a hub airport.

Whether it be Planes, Trains, or Automobiles, is there an appetite for construction of new transport infrastructure in the UK?  Airports, HS2, major road improvement schemes are the subject of strict public scrutiny with the primary objections focused on environmental grounds, climate change, noise, air quality, land use, etc.  There is the added element of NIMBYism too.  Having worked as a bird surveyor on a section of the proposed HS2 route last year, this somewhat glib acronym was given added pertinence and gravity having experienced first-hand the potential destruction of communities and habitat.  With effective mitigation, the pain of this loss can be significantly reduced, but there will be pain nonetheless, a price to pay if we are to preserve the long-term prosperity of our country.

I remember my first airport planning task in my first airport planning role.  To design a Boris Island airport schematic.  With a blank piece of paper, I methodically drew up using a Computer Aided Design tool, a scale drawing of the concept that was eventually presented at an early steering commitee meeting by my then boss.  A proud moment I guess, but I was uncomfortable with it then as I am now of the proposals.  It is difficult to park the emotional side and stay objective but the IoG airport development proposal sits extremely uncomfortably with me.  Having watched the programme last night, the eradication of such a globally important habitat is tantamount to the destruction of the Amazon rain forest or our negligence of proliferate overfishing.  A bit excessive perhaps, but the point is that our bio-diversity matters.  If we manage this locally, then we have a great chance of protecting this globally. The IoG proposal opposes this concept. Frankly, what does BoJo care about wintering populations of Black-Tailed Godwit or breeding Marsh Harriers?

We need airport expansion at our hub airport, our current system cannot cope with the demand as capacity is already strained.  Expanding existing infrastructure is the sensible solution. Amsterdam do it, Paris do it, Frankfurt do it, but we need to be clever and innovative to deliver the capacity that we need.  We need a joined up solution that connects the London airports either through the airline alliances or through inter-modality.  We just don't have the space to do it all at one airport and destroying an important ecological habitat for me is not the way forward. 

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