Nobody wants to live next to an airport, but most people want to have one at a convenient distance. They are large-scale activities, so they have a symbolic importance for politicians playing at infrastructure as nothing happens for years even after a policy shift. And, despite all the evidence and experience to the contrary, there is still a perceived glamour about flying.
Watching the current shadow-boxing on aviation policy, pent-up as a result of procrastination on the release of a government consultation, is hilarious. Apparently, if some Neanderthal petrol-heads are to be believed, the key to economic regeneration is either a third runway at Heathrow or the revived Maplin Sands airport, commonly referred to as Boris Island. Quite apart from the risible assertion that more flights in themselves generate economic growth, the weakness of the logic is seldom challenged by a media whose London obsession seldom results in penetrating beyond the M25.
Expanding airport capacity MAY be necessary - although the forecasts for aviation demand are predicated upon continued growth at current rates, and at current fare levels, which is highly doubtful given the economics of the airline industry (Beardie's vanity project, underwritten by Singapore Airlines, lost £80m last year), and fossil fuel production. However, there is something perverse in assuming that it should be focused either on South-East England greenfield sites, or a heavily-constrained, densely-populated part of West London. One doesn't have any infrastructure to support an airport, the other is bursting at the seams.
Despite the South-East being overheated, the majority of people don't live there - nor is the majority of business conducted there. Building more airport capacity will potentially suck in more people to use public transport and road networks already full - and doubtless the promoters, as with the Olympics, would expect the public purse to fund their improvement to allow them to claim entrepreneurial success. Why should passengers from Scotland, the North and the Midlands have to travel to London to catch a flight?
The cry of "connectivity" is always deployed at this point. Apparently there are too few slots at Heathrow to connect the UK to emerging markets in the Far East. In that case, the market should decide what destinations are served through slot auctions - not a difficult pastime. Branson, albeit in a fit of pathetic pique, seems to be able to use some of his slots for additional domestic flights from Heathrow next year, so the capacity issue is clearly not at a crunch-point.
What is needed is for much more focus on the non-South East airports, where there is capacity and room for expansion with much less (or at least more cheaply resolvable) pressure on land and infrastructure. Direct access to markets, holiday destinations and the provision of connectivity should be part of a long-term policy to reduce dependence on London, and expanding airports in the South-East is perverse.
The idea that more capacity at Heathrow, or a new airport where engineering tests on bird-strikes can be carried out n real-time, is a solution to either aviation policy or wider economic development is risible - it's time for the debate to be directed at where we need to be in thirty years - and for the question to be asked as to whether we should go on predicting and providing for aviation in the current model. Smaller, well-connected airports provide a much better experience and do not place undue demands on local economies - with a national hub for the markets which cannot sustain regional flights. Developing the current model is a sane and practical approach against which there is no tested alternative, and transport policy cannot be based on political grandstanding.