By Michael Sercan Daventry
LONDON (AA) – The forests and green expanses of Richmond Park are so vast that visitors wandering in them can almost forget they are still in London. Hundreds of wild deer live in what is one of Britain’s oldest parks, created by King Charles I nearly 400 years ago.
But this peaceful seclusion is shattered once every few minutes by the roaring engines of a passenger jet passing overhead.
Richmond Park is just eight kilometers [five miles] from London’s Heathrow Airport and local residents live under the flight path for aircraft making their final approach to land.
It is these residents – vocal and well organized – who are determined to prevent Europe’s largest airport from building another runway and generating even more noise.
Since 2006, successive British governments have equivocated over the question of airport expansion around London, even though businesses argue the case is clear cut.
-The politics of business-
Air travel in the U.K. has developed so rapidly since the turn of the century that Heathrow, the country’s largest airport, now says it operates 1,300 take-offs and landings every day of the year.
Business travelers say the airport urgently needs to accept more flights if it is going to compete with regional rivals as a hub for connections to Asia and Africa – two of the most rapidly growing regions in the world.
But with its two runways practically filled to capacity, Heathrow is losing ground to its rivals. In 2014, it lost its mantle as the world’s busiest international airport to Dubai.
Growth is strong at other European hubs – Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris in particular – and Istanbul is rapidly building a huge new airport that could supplant them all before the end of the decade.
Heathrow says this is why it urgently needs to build a third runway, but protest groups say the ‘business hub’ argument is baseless.
Anti-expansion opponents, the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN), say: “Contrary to aviation lobby rhetoric, a new runway is not needed to allow more international business flights, which have been declining steadily since the turn of the century.
“The hub airport argument is a smokescreen. In reality, growing demand for air travel is concentrated in the short-haul leisure sector and among a small, wealthy minority of the population. It is more of these flights that a new runway will in practice service.”
-The politics of noise-
Pressure groups like HACAN say a larger Heathrow will create even more noise and air pollution – and they are hugely influential in getting their message to the right places.
Dozens of lawmakers representing constituencies in London oppose Heathrow’s expansion, as did every major party candidate in the citywide mayoral election three weeks ago.
The new London mayor, Sadiq Khan, believes the oncoming capacity problems would be solved by building a second runway at Gatwick Airport, about 50 kilometers south of the city.
“Gatwick can expand without the devastating environmental impact of a third runway at Heathrow, while bringing huge economic benefits and being more affordable and deliverable,” Khan told The Observer last December.
The London mayor is traditionally responsible for approving major building projects within the city’s boundaries but the decision for Heathrow will be taken out of his hands. It is the British government that will have the final say over airport expansion because it is deemed a question that concerns the whole country.
Successive prime ministers have dithered over approving Heathrow’s plans. Gordon Brown gave the green light to a new runway seven years ago, but the decision was reversed when he lost the 2010 general election to David Cameron.
-The politics of night flights-
In a bid to take the decision out of politicians’ hands, Cameron appointed a non-partisan body to investigate different options for expansion and consider which was best. It recommended Heathrow over Gatwick.
Howard Davies, chairman of the body, said in a statement when its report was published last summer: “Heathrow is best-placed to provide the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long haul destinations to new markets. It provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy.”
But no decision has been taken in the year since Davies made the recommendation and the U.K. government has not hinted at whether it will support it.
Analysts have speculated Cameron has been waiting for next month’s European Union membership referendum to pass before making a decision in July.
It was perhaps the strain of waiting that led Heathrow to unilaterally announce in May that it was abandoning its opposition to a longer ban on night flights, which had been proposed by Davies as a condition of picking it over Gatwick.
Heathrow said it would accept a ban on all flights between 11 p.m. and 5.30 a.m. Currently flights cannot take-off or land between 11.30 p.m. and 4.30 a.m.
Whether the concession will sway the U.K. government remains to be seen. But few could deny the residents in Richmond are making themselves heard.