Waiting is over for runways decision

THE Government will today seek to end years of uncertainty about airport expansion by publishing an aviation White Paper.But in outlining its views on the best way of coping with passenger growth over the next 30 years, the Government is bound to face anger, litigation and further controversy.

THE Government will today seek to end years of uncertainty about airport expansion by publishing an aviation White Paper.

But in outlining its views on the best way of coping with passenger growth over the next 30 years, the Government is bound to face anger, litigation and further controversy.

It is thought that Transport Secretary Alistair Darling will opt for a new runway at Stansted Airport - a move that will infuriate British Airways and other airlines.

BA and others are far keener to see an extra third, short runway built at Heathrow. But such a move would breach environmental rules and Mr Darling could compromise by allowing more flights from Heathrow's existing runways.

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BA has threatened court action should Heathrow expansion be ruled out and the airline's chief executive Rod Eddington has said aviation could face the sort of decline experienced by shipbuilding and coal mining should no extra Heathrow runway be contemplated.

Expansion of Stansted, where the Government has been considering up to three extra runways, is fiercely opposed by a vociferous residents' group which numbers celebrity chef Jamie Oliver among its members.

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There are equally strong residents' groups opposing any expansion at Heathrow and also at Gatwick in West Sussex, where new runway plans are made more complicated by an agreement reached in the late 1970s.

Made between the former British Airports Authority (now BAA) and the local council, the agreement prohibits expansion at Gatwick before 2019.

It is believed Mr Darling could decide on a new runway at Birmingham Airport which would rule out the option of building a new two-runway airport between Coventry and Rugby.

Expansion at Birmingham would also mean that East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire would miss out on getting a new runway.

Also certain to be abandoned is the new £9 billion airport in the Thames Estuary at Cliffe in north Kent.

The Government also seems sure to reject an intriguing scheme for a new airport - Severnside in the Severn Estuary, near Newport in South Wales.

Elsewhere, new runways are likely to be ruled out, but Mr Darling is expected to signal expansion of existing facilities at such airports as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and Belfast International.

There has been some suggestion that the White Paper would signal an increase in Air Passenger Duty - the departure tax that passengers pay when leaving UK airports. But it is now thought this will remain unchanged and instead Mr Darling will press for a "greener" approach by aviation.

The local government aviation group SASIG last week said it feared Mr Darling would merely "dither' in the White Paper and this would lead to thousands of residents living near airports suffering uncertainty and blight for years.

Transport 2000 has said the Government has over-emphasised the importance of airport expansion, but airlines, trade unions and big business all believe that expansion is vital if the UK is to maintain its competitiveness with European rivals.

Jim McAuslan, general secretary of airline pilots' union Balpa, said: "In the White Paper we want to hear from the Government that they will give our industry the extra runways and airport infrastructure it needs.

"This means first and foremost a new third runway at Heathrow. It means, too, another runway at Gatwick and another at Stansted.

"One new runway will never cope with the rising demand."

Tony Grayling, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said: "The Government must reject the siren calls of the aviation industry to build as many runways as it takes to accommodate growth at all costs.

"That would repeat the mistake made in road building during the 1980s.

"Instead, the growth in air transport should be managed, respecting global and local environmental limits, ensuring that aviation pays its environmental costs and promoting balanced regional economic development.'

The institute also said:

nThe White Paper should call for aviation emissions to be regulated at international level and make this an objective of UK foreign policy.

nAviation should pay its environmental damage costs, like other industries.

nAirports should be required to meet strict noise and air quality standards and new airport developments should not result in large numbers of people being subjected to health-damaging levels of noise and air pollution.

nBuilding more runways in the south-east England without managing the growth in demand for air transport is likely to entrench regional economic inequalities.

nThe White Paper should make a strong commitment to the development of high-speed rail as a more environmentally friendly alternative to short-haul flights.

Friends of the Earth's director Tony Juniper said: "The White Paper will demonstrate Government commitment towards protecting the environment. And if, as seems likely, it gives the green light for more runways to be built, it will show that protecting the planet is a low priority, regardless of the public relations spin."

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