Airports industry expansion plans fail to take off

IN MAY 2007 a public inquiry started at Stansted Airport, Essex, over plans to increase the number of passengers from the current 25 million limit a year to 35 million. This inquiry started after the local Uttlesford district council turned down the British Airports Authority (BAA) application for expansion following protests by the local community and various organisations.

Chris Newby

The current plans to expand UK airports arose out of the government’s 2003 Aviation White Paper, which proposed an extra runway at Stansted by 2011 and a third runway at Heathrow for 2015. Heathrow’s expansion would mean 700 homes being demolished and an extra 150,000 people under the flight path. Stansted’s expansion would affect about 580 homes and destroy ancient woodland.

A growing tide of opposition is reflected in several local councils’ decisions to oppose airport expansion. Macclesfield council successfully opposed Manchester Airport plans to build a 1,500 place car park on green belt land, criticising the airport’s failure to properly invest in improved public transport links.

Warwick district council rejected plans to increase passenger numbers at Coventry airport. Several other airports shelved plans to develop their sites probably in response to this opposition.

BAA runs the UK’s main airports. They call for this expansion, saying that south east England in particular faces airport congestion that supposedly costs the economy £1.7 billion a year.

The government-commissioned Oxford Economic Forecasting group report says the UK economy would benefit by an extra £13 billion a year once completed. But 90% of this report’s costs were funded by the aviation industry!

A lot is at stake with these proposed expansions, both for the airports themselves and the airline industry internationally which is worth $470 billion. The airline industry has now recovered from the losses it made following the 9/11 attacks and last year made $5 billion in profits.

Some of the harshest exponents of ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism are in the airline industry, such as Willie Walsh at British Airways and Michael O’Leary at Ryanair. Flight numbers have increased dramatically in Britain with 32 million using airports in 1970 rising to 235 million in 2006.

London is a major hub for airlines with Heathrow, the busiest international airport. Airports around Britain directly employ 180,000 people with hundreds of thousands more relying for their work indirectly from the airports.

Global warming

Organisations such as Friends of the Earth, who are concerned about damage to the environment, argue against any further airport expansion and call for extra taxes on flights as well as a cut to the £9 billion tax subsidies the airlines get. Flights have a big impact on the production of greenhouse gases.

It is estimated that these will rise to 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 if flights are not checked. Air travel produces 19 times the greenhouse gases that train travel does.

But the increase, in particular, of low-cost flights has given far more people the opportunity to travel, particularly families on lower incomes, although still only half the UK population fly. If further taxes were imposed these people would be the hardest hit.

Airport expansion needs to be looked at in the wider context of the transport system generally but also the conditions that many people work in. People at work increasingly face longer hours and attacks on their holiday entitlement. Given this and the fact that flights can be both dramatically cheaper and far quicker than equivalent train or road travel, is it any wonder that people prefer to fly?

The standard single train fare from London to Glasgow is £97, which on a budget airline could probably get you to the other side of Europe. By bringing the rail companies back into public ownership with full public funding to improve and increase the rolling stock and with a massive reduction in fares, this could see a shift away from the use of air travel, particularly as most flights in Europe are less than 500 kilometres.

Linked to this is the everyday struggle in improving workers’ conditions so people can afford to take longer holidays and are not under so much pressure to find the quickest form of transport.

Both Unite and GMB unions representing tens of thousands of airport workers both argue in favour of expansion at Stansted because of the new jobs this can bring to the area (about 5,000 in this case) but they also link this to the development of technology to cut carbon emissions.

This is understandable given the lack of alternative jobs but couldn’t new jobs be created in developing the local transport infrastructure and local public services?

Any expansion should not be based on making profit but on what is in the best interests of the local community, airport workers, passengers and the environment. Any expansion that is carried out must be done with all those affected having full democratic participation in any plans.