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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The future of Heathrow

London's Heathrow Airport handles more international passengers than any other. My first trip through LHR was in 1985, and I've passed through the airport more than 50 times in the last three years. In the past one could have said with justification that LHR was an ordeal, but improvements have made it one of the world's most usable airports -- as long as you accept four separate terminals. (If you want to experience true chaos, try changing airlines at Paris' Charles de Gaulle.)

The most serious problem at LHR, however, has not been addressed: capacity for takeoffs and landings. With only two runways, LHR cannot accommodate more aircraft. Passenger growth comes only from using larger aircraft such as the Airbus A380. Worse, the slightest disruption at LHR leads to massive delays and numerous cancellations. Airports like Frankfurt that compete with LHR have much more concrete. If the UK government doesn't act, it's only a question of when LHR will lose its ranking. That's a worrisome scenario for British Airways and for the nation overall.

What will the UK government do? Adding a runway at LHR would solve the problem, but NIMBYs oppose it. The other airports in the vicinity of London, such as Gatwick, would require enormous expansion to replace LHR. NIMBYs oppose that too. Mayor Boris Johnson proposes a new replacement airport east of London, but I hope that no one takes his proposal seriously.

Other pending infrastructure projects in the UK are controversial. A high-speed rail line to link the less economically vibrant Birmingham and Manchester with London would be expensive and, some argue, environmentally disruptive. Even a large sewer project for London has critics. And there is the usual bickering and posturing by political parties.

I applaud the UK for identifying needs for infrastructure, researching solutions, and debating the merits. But it's time to overcome the NIMBYs and build that third runway at LHR.