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March 10, 2013 9:26 pm

Pilot plots longer Heathrow runways

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Heathrow Airport©PA

Heathrow airport suffering capacity constraints

A contentious plan to solve the UK’s hub capacity crunch by doubling the number of flights at London’s Heathrow airport has been devised by Concorde’s longest-serving pilot.

Captain William “Jock” Lowe is proposing to extend Heathrow’s existing northern and southern runways, from 3,900 and 3,700 metres to 7,500 metres, moving part of the M25 in the process.

The £7.5bn plan to lengthen each runway would accommodate aircraft landing and taking off at the same time, doubling the airport’s passenger capacity from 70m to 140m and increasing the number of flights from 480,000 per year to almost 1m.

It is one of several competing ideas to solve the capacity crunch in the south-east of England, which also include proposals for a new hub in the Thames estuary and the expansion of Gatwick airport.

This form of airport operation is known as “mixed mode” and is highly contentious. Not only would the additional flights potentially increase the aircraft noise suffered by those living under the flight paths, but mixed mode would do away with Heathrow’s current system of using only one runway at a time for jet take-offs or landings.

John Stewart, head of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, said: “For people under the existing flight paths, there would be uproar. They would be getting a double whammy – more planes, and planes all day long. My sense is that it could be as unpopular in west London as a third runway.”

But Mr Lowe, a former chief pilot at British Airways, told the Financial Times that aircraft noise could be reduced by flying jets higher over London, bringing them into Heathrow on steeper descents and flying in over less populated areas.

“The airlines and air traffic control have done very little on noise mitigation on arrival and even on take-off,” he said.

Concorde pilot making a new big noise

Flying high: Jock Lowe at the controls of a Concorde

Jock Lowe realised he wanted to pilot Concorde the day he turned 25. He had learnt to fly on the Air Squadron at Birmingham University, while getting his PhD in applied science. Joining the squadron had been a whim, and he was far from sure he wanted to make a career of flying. But when he turned on the television on his 25th birthday and saw the first flight of the British Concorde, “I thought: that’s what I’ll do”.

It took another seven years, but in 1976 he wrangled his way on to the first BA officers’ course for the supersonic jet and went on to become its longest-serving pilot, with 27 years’ under his belt by the time he retired.

But he spent as much time over the decades steering BA’s strategy as he did its jets, moving to the Concorde commercial division in 1982 and other management roles at the airline. This was how he first started to engage with the people living near airports who had to live with the noise of the world’s loudest jet.

Their response was not, however, negative. “Early on, I was giving a presentation, and when we talked about noise ... this chap kept trying to interject and I wouldn’t let him: I always went into the most minute detail of what we did, which was [to engage in] the most complex noise-abatement procedures.

“But he said, ‘No, I don’t want it to be quieter, I want it to be noisier so I can get out into my garden in time to see it!’”

Still, Mr Lowe recognises residents’ need for quiet – especially when it comes to less “charismatic” aircraft.

The £7.5bn proposal he has drawn up for doubling Heathrow’s capacity aims to mitigate uproar from residents of west London by requiring jets to fly higher for longer, making steeper descents. He thinks the aviation industry should be working harder at noise reduction at Heathrow, including designing flight paths that avoid densely populated areas.

“I spent half my life taking off, turning at the end of the runway, and at precise degrees of banks, flying over Hounslow Heath,” he says. “I’d love to have blasted over central London. It would’ve been much easier.”

Mr Lowe has submitted his plans to the Davies commission, which was set up by the government last year to preserve the UK’s status as an international aviation hub.

“When we started hearing about all these various ideas, I thought this is just getting really rather silly,” said Mr Lowe. “Heathrow is in the ideal spot ... For UK Ltd, why would you dream of putting it somewhere else?”

Mr Lowe is working with Mark Bostock, a former director at the engineers Arup, who has developed a plan for a new railway station at Heathrow that could also serve as an airport terminal.

The former pilot claimed his £7.5bn proposal presented the cheapest option to solve the capacity crunch in the south east. It compares to the £10bn proposal by Tim Leunig, an economist, to turn Heathrow into a four-runway airport by shifting the airport’s centre of gravity further west, which would require the M25 to be tunnelled underneath.

The Thames estuary airport proposed by Lord Foster, the architect, could cost £50bn, including rail links and other infrastructure.

Unlike proposals to move the UK’s hub east of the capital, Mr Lowe’s plan would not jeopardise the jobs and businesses that have grown up around Heathrow and the Thames Valley.

“It was the frustration with all these, I can only say daft, ideas that pushed me to do this,” he said.

Heathrow is already operating at full capacity. Mr Lowe estimates a limited extension of the airport’s northern runway – supporting additional flights – could be completed within three years of a ministerial decision to authorise such a move.

The full plan, involving two runways each measuring 7,500 metres, could be completed within a decade and address Heathrow’s relatively poor rail links by including a new station.

As for the impact on greenhouse gas emissions from twice as many flights coming in and out of Heathrow, Mr Lowe and his team are making a virtue of the “integrated” nature of their plan.

In the first phase of the ground-transport improvement that form part of the plan, the airport would connect to Crossrail and the Great Western rail line.

People from Bristol, for example, could take the train for the first leg of a journey rather than fly to Heathrow, or worse still, an airport in continental Europe.

Subsequent phases would see Heathrow linked to the High Speed 2 rail line connecting London with northern England, and the high-speed link to Europe, although this would take many years.

“I was an executive director at BA ... and I was in charge of Gatwick for BA for six or nine months, and we couldn’t even make that work as a secondary hub. Nobody can,” says Mr Lowe. “So it was always about, what are we going to do about Heathrow, how do we get more movements? I guess for the last 20-odd years, it’s always been on my agenda to think about it.”

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