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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 April 2008

Airports: Expanding profits at our expense

TWO HUNDRED flights cancelled in three days, 20,000 bags left behind and a three-hour wait to re-claim baggage on arrival. These were some of the horrors that passengers had to endure when using the newly-opened Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport.

Mark Pickersgill

Twenty years of planning and at a cost of 4.3 billion, Terminal 5 was supposed to be the new flagship for British Airways and BAA (formerly British Airports Authority). A combination of poor training and insufficient staff numbers, amongst other things, led to the ensuing chaos.

Once again attention has been focussed on the perilous state of transportation in 21st century Britain and also the issue of airport expansion with proposals for a third runway at Heathrow on the agenda.

When T5 was planned, a cap of 400,000 take-offs and landings a year from Heathrow was envisaged, but if the third runway gets the go-ahead this figure will rise to 700,000 a year.

Undoubtedly this will have environmental and safety consequences. Locally, 700 homes will have to be demolished, including the whole village of Sipson just north of Heathrow, to make way for a third runway and another new terminal. Nine schools in the immediate area would be affected by extra aircraft noise and studies have shown that children's learning ability can be compromised by constant excessive noise.

Poor air quality caused by pollution will have a detrimental affect on people's health throughout west London.

There is also the question of safety. Britain's skies are already congested with 5,000 aircraft movements taking place every day.

The problem is even more acute in the south east because of the close proximity of four main airports - Heathrow, Luton, Gatwick and Stansted.

Safety issues

The risks of a serious accident, including mid-air collision, is increasing and the recent crash of a small executive jet in Farnborough highlights the dangers of routeing aircraft over populated areas.

Already NATS (National Air Traffic Services) have had to redraw the aircraft map of the south east due to the increase in air traffic even without the third runway at Heathrow and a second runway proposed at Stansted.

There are also environmental concerns arising from airport expansion. At present pollution from aircraft accounts for 6.3% of all CO2 emissions in the UK although this calculation does not take into account the extra emissions from aircraft re-routed and delayed because of congestion. CO2 emissions from high altitudes also have a greater impact because the pollution gets closer to the upper atmosphere which has a greater warming affect on the planet.

Big business of course regards air travel as a highly profitable investment. BAA, which runs Heathrow and several other UK airports, was taken over last year by the Spanish firm Grupo Ferrovial for 10 billion using 9 billion of borrowed money. The new owners are enthusiastic proponents of airport expansion because of the high profits to be made from airports.

Heathrow now has as much retail space as Brent Cross shopping centre in north London. Profits extracted from a captive market of passengers are further enhanced by premium prices paid in airport shops and increased security check-in times. No doubt the recent delays at T5 have been of great advantage to these retail outlets, with some people accusing BAA of being more interested in shops than in putting people onto planes.

Further attempts at attacking the pay and conditions and staffing levels of the workforce at Heathrow are also inevitable as the new owners of BAA try to increase profit margins to pay off its huge debt obligations.

Various environmental groups are opposed to the third runway, but there is a risk that workers at Heathrow could be alienated by some of the arguments and methods that the protesters use. 70,000 workers are employed at Heathrow which hosts the largest single-site workforce in Britain, with thousands more in the surrounding area dependent on the airport. The prosperity of thousands of workers therefore depends at present on the airport and its expansion.


It is the job of socialists to sensitively take up the concerns of environmental protesters, airport workers and passengers by patiently explaining our programme on the issues of airport expansion.

We argue for all transport to be brought back into public ownership, including BAA, BA and Britain's railways but this time under democratic workers' control and management. This would allow transport to be planned for people's needs and to safeguard the environment rather than the need to make profits.

Huge investments are required to upgrade the whole of Britain's transport system, not something that private ownership will take up. At present, for instance, there are no plans to build any more high speed railway lines in Britain or to link up with the rest of Europe's rail networks, thereby eliminating the need for short-haul flights.

The oldest and one of the most expensive and overcrowded railway systems in the world, means that many people have little choice but to travel by plane.

There are some who argue that aircraft are more fuel efficient and less noisy now. For instance, the new Airbus A380 super-jumbo is reported to use 20% less fuel per passenger than a conventional airliner and most airliners are four time less noisy than 40 years ago.

But compared to other forms of transport, aeroplanes are less efficient. Estimates put a Eurostar train travelling from London to Paris as being ten times more fuel efficient than the equivalent aircraft flight.

Air travel has brought the world closer together and working class and middle class people have benefited from cheap flights. Therefore a democratically planned and publicly owned transport system would have to invest huge amounts into developing all alternatives and also a less polluting - and eventually non-polluting - mode of air travel.

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In The Socialist 2 April 2008:

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