What’s happening?
Tomorrow, former CBI economist Howard Davies will release an interim report on the options for expanding Britain’s airport capacity. Some of the possibilities Davies has been considering include developing the regional airports (possibly with a High Speed rail element), building a new giant hub airport in the Thames Estuary, expanding capacity at Gatwick or Stansted Airports, or building a new runway at Heathrow.

What will Davies say tomorrow?
Both Sky News and the Sunday Times have reported that Davies is going to back three ‘favoured options’ in his report:

  1. Third runway at Heathrow
  2. Third runway at Heathrow and one at Gatwick
  3. Two new runways at Heathrow

As well as discounting the option of expanding regional airports, the most obvious missing solution is Boris Johnson’ Thames Estuary airport, aka Boris Island.

So, Heathrow will be getting bigger?
Not quite yet — all of the rumoured options politically toxic. Boris is (not surprisingly) angry that his solution has been dropped and has accused the Prime Minister  of setting up the commission to ‘provide a cover for a U-Turn on Heathrow’. Richmond MP Zac Goldsmith has threatened to resign and trigger a by-election on the issue of Heathrow.

Are many other politicians anti-Heathrow?
Ed Miliband has long been opposed to expanding Heathrow Airport (even threatening to resign from Gordon Brown’s Cabinet over the matter) but is rumored to be softening his position. Clegg was also opposed to Heathrow but in a press conference today, he said the Lib Dems ‘have always been concerned about the environmental impact of aviation’ but ‘will look at the proposals’.

David Cameron is also notionally adverse to a third runway at Heathrow. Reportedly, he has secretly met with Davies last week urge him to include a non-Heathrow option in his report. But today, the Transport Secretary said ‘we haven’t ruled anything out’.

Why is there so much anger?
Heathrow Airport, its flight path and the associated noise run through several marginal seats. Such was the anger from residents both the Conservatives and Lib Dems have publicly stood against the expansion of Heathrow. They cancelled Labour’s planned expansion when entering office in May 2010.

What does the public think?
The latest YouGov polling suggests 32 per cent are in favour of expanding capacity at regional airports, compared to 13 per cent supporting Boris Island and 12 per cent in favour of expanding Heathrow. 40 per cent also think the government should stop dithering an make a decision sooner than at the next election.

So why not just ignore the controversy?
The issue of airport expansion is costing the UK up to £14 billion a year in lost revenue. Heathrow is running at 98 per cent capacity and can only handle 480,000 flights a year, compared to 700,000 for other major European airports.

There’s also a worry we can’t build anything anymore. Britain appears to be moving towards nimbyism – we’re keen to talk about improving our infrastructure but when it comes to the decision time, everyone runs away — see High Speed 2. Labour ran away from Heathrow, but will the coalition sidestep another controversial decision? Such is life on a small island.

Tags: Airports, Aviation, Boris Johnson, Gatwick Airport, Heathrow Airport, Howard Davies, UK politics