Heathrow Airport communities wary of more promises

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Image caption The independent Davies Commission has recommended expanding Heathrow, but with severe environmental restrictions

"Dear Neighbour,

"Our position could not be clearer, nor could it be more formally placed upon the record. Terminal 5 will not lead to a third runway." (Sir John Egan, chief executive of Heathrow's then owner BAA Ltd, April 1999).

It's not surprising that Heathrow Airport has some trust issues with its neighbours. In the fiery battle to build a brand new fifth terminal (T5) in the 1990s, the man who used to run Heathrow's parent company made a series of promises to ease concerns.

The biggest was a commitment to permanently rule out a third runway.

It might be 17 years since that neighbourly letter was sent out, but the memory still smarts for local opponents. That's why many people have told me they simply don't believe the new package of promises unveiled last week by Heathrow's current boss, John Holland-Kaye.

Some look remarkably similar to the 1999 list, including pledges to limit noise, night flights, new runways and a vow to get more than half of passengers arriving on public transport.

The new boss has learnt from his predecessor's errors. Just look at last week's talk about laying down new asphalt: Heathrow will "accept a commitment from government ruling out any fourth runway".

In other words, we're not going to pretend we'll never want it. But if the government blocks it we won't make a fuss.

The Heathrow CEO also recently said sorry for abandoning the pledge on a third runway,

"I am shocked by that commitment. It should never have been made. And it could never be kept... It has hung over the relationship with local communities, and has led to a deficit of trust that can only be repaired by demonstrating we are a different company from the past," he said.

But the letter still comes up in conversation when I talk to people. Trust is hard won, easily squandered.


Did they keep any of the old promises?

I dug out the old letter from 1999. It was written at the end of the public inquiry into T5, a couple of years before the final approval came through. It's full of commitments. So how did they do?

Promise 1: "An additional Heathrow runway should be ruled out forever." Promise broken.

Promise 2: "A legal freeze on the night flight quota... at today's (1999) levels."

This one isn't straightforward, so bear with me. The number of actual planes flying overhead between 11:30pm and 6am has stayed roughly the same since 1999. It averages around 16 a night.

In fact, in 1999, it was 5,666 airliners in total. Last year it was 5,498. (That doesn't include exemptions for bad weather and emergencies).

But, that's not the only way things are measured. They also use a points system called the quota count. It's a formula that combines the number of aircraft with the type used. Because some are noisier than others.

The upper limit is set by the government.

In 1999, Heathrow was allowed 11,140 noise points. They only used 9,312. In 2015 they were allowed 9,180 points. They only used 5,322. (Those figures come from Heathrow).

So, the number of aircraft is the same, but they have cut right down on their government allocated "noise budget", because the planes are quieter. Promise kept.

Image copyright @PlaneStupid
Image caption Protesters have spent years fighting against Heathrow expansion

Heathrow's current, third runway proposal would stop flights between 11pm and 5:30am. That's the biggest change for decades. In reality, it would mean the six flights that now touch down between 4:30am and 5:30am would be pushed a little later, to arrive between 5:30am and 6am.

So, you'd still get 16 early flights, they'd just all arrive in the half-hour before 6am, give or take a few minutes.

Promise 3: "We have proposed that if T5 is allowed there should be a legally-binding cap on noise levels at 1994 levels."

Noise is complex. Different things irritate different people. For some it's peak noise. For others it's about getting a regular break. The government currently says that 57 decibels (dB) is the point at which people start getting annoyed.

Ministers set a noise contour, based on 57dB on a summer's day between 7am and 11pm. It's a maximum area where the airport can be noisy.

Heathrow's noise contour is limited to 145 sq km. The latest Civil Aviation Authority figures show the actual, current 57dB contour is 104.9 sq km.

The retirement of Concorde in 2004 had a significant impact, cutting the noise envelope down from 126.9 sq km to 117.9 sq km. But far more significant was the global phasing out of noisier, Chapter 2 aircraft, which began in 2002, coupled with the continued introduction of quieter planes. Promise kept.

Promise 4: "We promise to take steps to reduce the impact of cars travelling to the airport by setting a long-term vision of 50% of passengers using public transport to Heathrow." It doesn't say how long "long-term" is, but 17 years on, the current level is just 40%. Promise broken.

Interestingly, the current proposal for a third runway includes a claim that "over 55% of passengers" will arrive on public transport.

To be clear, there are many, many people who live near Heathrow who want to see it expand. They rely on the airport for jobs. They've got used to the noise. They knew it was noisy when they moved there.

I spent an hour or so in Hounslow market the other day, chatting to people. Views were split right down the middle, half for and half against.

But if the government does pick Heathrow rather than Gatwick when it finally decides where to build a new runway, it faces a torrid time trying to get the plans through.

Part of the reason for that is concern that promises on growth and noise will simply be broken.

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