Boris Johnson gets his facts wrong on air travel

 (Photo: AFP/Getty)
The capital's airports are full, Boris says (Photo: AFP/Getty)

The Mayor was the target of ill-informed nonsense last week, when his perfectly practical proposal for driverless Tube trains was attacked on almost absurdly spurious grounds. This week, however, on a different transport topic, it is Boris who has deployed the dodgy arguments.

Launching his latest appeal for another London airport yesterday, Boris is quoted in the FT as saying that “the capital’s airports are full” and “our runways are rammed.” This is untrue. Heathrow is (almost) full, but none of the others are. There is substantial spare capacity at Stansted and Luton, and there could be even more if Luton’s plans to expand are approved.

In yesterday’s Standard, Boris wrote that “twenty years ago Heathrow served more destinations than any other European airport. It has now slipped to seventh place, way behind Paris and Frankfurt.” Well, it is true that Heathrow alone now offers fewer destinations – but there are five airports in London. And between them, they have direct international flights to more places, more often, than any other city on earth. In fact, they handle almost as many international passengers as Paris and Frankfurt put together.

Boris also claimed yesterday that London is being cut off from new tiger markets, claiming that our airports can “collectively muster” only “five flights a day to China, to Beijing and Shanghai” while “Paris Charles de Gaulle airport already sends 11 flights a day to four destinations in China and Frankfurt sends 10 flights to six destinations.”

Even if these figures were true, it seems unlikely that any Chinese businessmen would decide where to invest on the basis of whether a city has five or ten flights a day. Alas, however, Boris has been fiddling: he is not comparing like with like. His numbers for Frankfurt and Paris appear to include flights to Hong Kong. However, Hong Kong has been carefully excluded from his London figure – no doubt because it means that London in fact decisively wins this contest.

Frankfurt does have more Chinese destinations than London, though the smaller ones are served only by a handful of flights each week. But overall, London decisively outstrips the German city on frequency. Including Hong Kong, London has 92 flights a week to China, or an average of 13 a day. Paris has 73 and Frankfurt has only 69.

The biggest flaw in the Johnson argument, however (I’ll pass over his lovely idea of “a new generation of Prius planes”) is the view that a hub airport is a particularly important factor in a world city’s prosperity. Hub airports’ benefits to their host cities are only tangential – since transfer passengers, of course, never leave the airport. If achieving the business crown of Europe was about having a world-class hub airport, Frankfurt and Paris would have won it decades ago. Instead, even as they have streaked ahead of London in runway capacity, both cities have fallen further behind in their share of world commerce.

In London, there might be more barriers to getting through the airport. But there are fewer barriers in things that matter far more to international business. There is less regulation, more openness to outsiders and a critical mass of skilled people and companies.

A new London airport in the Thames Estuary, in Kent or Essex, would do more than anything in history to shift the capital’s centre of gravity to the east. It could be a decisive blow against the unemployment and poverty of the East End, which astonishingly is the highest in Britain. It would reduce aircraft noise over London – though flights from the Americas and Ireland would probably have to fly over far more of the capital, and some areas would see more noise.

So I support a new airport, in principle – but only if Heathrow or Gatwick, or preferably both, are closed. That would probably be necessary to stop the new airport being a white elephant, too. But it is not Boris’s plan. He wants a massive expansion in flying, with all the environmental cost that implies, talking some fairly spurious stuff about fulfilling the country’s “natural demand for air travel” (Mother Nature, or perhaps the airline lobby, has apparently calculated this at roughly double the current level.)

And the bigger problem is that Boris is not the mayor of Kent, or Essex. He simply has no power to do anything about his vision. Everyone who does have the power, from the local councils to the Government, seems either uninterested in the proposition, or actively hostile to it. Meanwhile, there are rather a lot of other priorities in London, which he actually does have some power over, that he could be getting on with.

Daniel Moylan, the deputy chair of TfL who produced yesterday’s report, says that coalition proposals to allow councils to keep more of the business rate will make them keener to have an airport on their doorstep. The lucky authority which lands the new hub will never have to charge its residents council tax again. That could be persuasive. But to get the public on side, Boris will need arguments which stand up better than the ones he used yesterday.

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