So, the British government has made a sort of decision about a new runway for Heathrow. The cabinet agrees that Heathrow will get a new runway but the decision to launch the project will not get made for about a year whilst consultations take place. Last weekend, a poorly kept secret that had been announced a day earlier came out regarding the choice of a new runway in the south east of England; it will be Heathrow…. Probably. This decision, however, ignores the existence of Heathrow’s de facto third runway; Northolt.
The headline that made the Times and other British newspapers prefixed the news using the word ‘fudge’; an accusation laid at the British prime minister’s door by a critical former colleague. Fudge is a hard word to use. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb, fudge, as being to present or deal with (something) in a vague or inadequate way, especially so as to conceal the truth or mislead. The fudge is the further delay about how to solve the issue of where to place additional runway capacity in the south east of England. For many, the plan to delay the decision is merely a decision to delay to give Heathrow a third runway. The point of consulting fellow politicians and the public when there is no choice is moot and is a strange use of the word consultation.
Heathrow already has a third runway… at Northolt
Keeping all of the politics and most of the economics out of the discussion, there are a number of aviation technical issues that are of interest. Firstly… both airports have an additional runway already. Gatwick has a procedure to allow a main taxiway to be used as an emergency runway. So two runways, but only to be used one at a time.
Heathrow has a more interesting third runway; the Royal Air Force base at Northolt, less than nine kilometres to the north. This military base that is, in part, used as a business jet centre has a short runway (just under 1800 m) orientated twenty degrees towards the east west runways of Heathrow. At present, the airport is used for less than 12 000 flights a year; just over 30 flights a day.
The Davis airport commission, in its final report, did not perform a great deal of analysis into the idea of combining Northolt with Heathrow. The report states “The Commission has not taken a position regarding the future use of civilian capacity at RAF Northolt”.
Those critical of the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow point out the high cost of the runway, the great amount of infrastructure changes that would be needed and the environmental impact to some of the most built-up parts of Europe. As a competitor to Heathrow, Gatwick is a cheaper option – it is still a proposed bill of over seven billion pounds – and the flipside to the impact on urban areas is that Gatwick will have an impact on a more rural environment.
Whilst current safety regulations will not allow the emergency runway at Gatwick to be used as a second runway, RAF Northolt could be Heathrow’s third runway – already in use and ready & waiting for expansion.
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