London mulls a new airport in the Thames Estuary

LONDON, UK — When Boris Johnson, London’s outspoken mayor, first floated a plan to build a 24-hour airport on a manmade island in the Thames Estuary, critics dismissed the concept as a pipe dream.

Today, with an overcrowded London Heathrow Airport rapidly losing business to European competitors, the UK government is examining several proposals to regain London’s footing as a global aviation hub — including a new airport in the estuary. Though a formal proposal has yet to emerge, the project widely known as “Boris Island” may not be just a fantasy.

Chancellor George Osborne told the House of Commons in November that the government will consider “all the options” in a review starting this year to determine whether London needs a new airport.

That was welcome news to Johnson, a vocal proponent of a new airport since his election in 2008. A new hub will “wrest back our share of a vital transport business that is currently hemorrhaging thousands of jobs to competitor countries,” Johnson said in November. “The penalty for inaction will grow ever more severe, but the prize is immense.”

More from GlobalPost: Should horse whipping be banned?

Environmentalists, airlines and local activists beg to differ.

“Boris needs to listen to public opinion, admit it is a pie in the sky idea and drop it for good,” said Rodney Chambers, the leader of Medway Council and an outspoken critic of an estuary airport, in a statement.

With only two runways operating at 98.5 percent capacity, Heathrow Airport is struggling to keep up as the main hub in a city that processes more airline passengers than any other in the world. Heathrow handles up to 75,000 more passengers each day than it was built to accommodate. When a disruption occurs, delays spill like dominoes through the tight schedule. An informal CNN survey recently ranked it as the world’s third most hated airport.

More from GlobalPost: In Britain, job losses contribute to economic bad news

Overcrowding at Heathrow also means that airlines have been unable to add new flights, particularly to China, Brazil and other lucrative emerging market destinations. Other European cities have stepped in to meet the demand. Hub airports in Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam each offer thousands more seats each week to mainland China than Heathrow does, according to a report from the mayor’s office. The same report estimated that the lack of direct flights to the emerging markets could be costing the UK up to £1.2 billion ($1.8 billion) each year.

In May 2010 the coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government officially ruled out the possibility of building a third runway at Heathrow, saying expansion would harm surrounding communities. Discussion then shifted to the Thames Estuary, a marshland roughly 35 miles east of London where the Thames River meets the North Sea. It’s been bandied about as a potential airport location since the 1940s.

Johnson is backing a £40 billion British ($61 billion) airport there with terminals on land, runways on the water and high-speed rail links to central London.

Boris Island, however, is only one of several proposals. In December the celebrated architect Lord Norman Foster unveiled plans for a £50 billion ($77 billion) airport on the estuary’s Isle of Grain. Former Cathay Pacific chief John Olsen has proposed a £15 billion ($23 billion) airport in the north Kent marshes. The government won’t formally consider any proposal until the aviation review is finished early next year.

Even if approved, a new airport wouldn’t open until 2030 at the earliest, according 2009 feasibility study commissioned by the mayor’s office. But at least one formal campaign is already underway to stop it. The Medway Council, Kent County Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are mounting a joint effort to block an airport, citing negative affects on the environment and nearby communities.

A new airport would generate additional greenhouse gases and irrevocably alter an important ecological site, critics contend. The estuary contains at least four bird habitats under special European protection, Royal Society spokesman Paul Outhwaite said; all of them would be affected by potential airport development.

“The [Royal Society] is not anti-development,” Outhwaite said. “It’s anti-inappropriate development and dangerous development, which we believe these airports would be.”

Airlines have also raised a host of questions that have no answers until the government completes its aviation review.

Who would pay for such a project? What would happen to the 76,600 people who currently work at Heathrow and to the communities where they live? How would air traffic be affected? And with air travel to London expected to nearly triple over the next 40 years, how will an overcrowded Heathrow manage in the decades before a new airport opens — if it ever does?

“The crisis is such that we need a much shorter-term solution than the building of a new airport,” said Simon Buck, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association, a trade group. “We just don’t think that’s the right solution for today’s problem.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.