BAA 'invented green superjumbo' to OK Heathrow plans
Noise nimbyism doesn't equal green, people
Comment The BBC's renowned Panorama team - famous for breaking the "news" that Wi-Fi really does make your head explode - will tomorrow reveal that UK airport operator BAA has cynically colluded with the government to falsify the environmental impact of expanding Heathrow airport. According to early reports, BAA drove down the projected noise and emissions figures by stating that flights to and from Heathrow would be made by "non-existent" "green superjumbos" which will never be built.
The Times is all over the story this morning, citing not only the Panorama sleuths' work but Freedom of Information Act requests of its own. According to the Thunderer, BAA has included a two-engine, 450-seat "invented" jet in their projections of future flights to and from an expanded Heathrow. The evil airport profiteers apparently say that "the green jumbo will account for more flights out of Heathrow by 2030 than four-engined giants such as the double-decker A380, or the new generation of Boeing 747s".
“Nothing like this is on the drawing board,” said an anonymous "senior industry source", speaking to the Times.
Bang to rights, surely? A greedy BAA and a supine government have combined to ensure that Heathrow expands unnecessarily, which will doom us all as carbon emissions soar unchecked and destroy the ecosphere. Maybe we shouldn't disregard the story because it's a technical issue and it's Panorama. Surely the Beeb protesters can get one right now and again?
Perhaps. There's bound to be at least some truth in the idea that BAA will have made its environmental estimates on the planned Heathrow expansion as nice-looking as possible, even to the point of massaging the figures very firmly indeed. I mean, duh, they would wouldn't they? And BAA certainly is a big monopolistic corporation, largely in control of a key UK infrastructure sector. People should surely suspect its motives, and watch its relationship with the government carefully.
But let's be quite clear about the issues here. Mostly we aren't, actually, talking about carbon emissions. Restricting Heathrow's expansion will hardly choke off global air travel to any noticeable degree. Planes will fly from other hubs, ones glad to have the business in the high-fuel-price, post credit crunch world. And there may not be any two-engine, 450-seat jets being built right now, but the new generation of four-engine ones are a good bit more fuel and carbon-efficient than their predecessors. The new largely-composite Dreamliner should be more efficient still. There are also some two-engine ones already flying that can manage 370 people and go to almost long-haul ranges - for instance the Boeing 777.
And it's no wonder the Times "industry source" chose to remain anonymous, with his "not on the drawing board" comment. Everything you can possibly imagine is on drawing boards in the aerospace industry - a mere 450-seat twinjet is nothing. Just as an example, consider the radical Blended Wing Body concept, now flying as a subscale demonstrator under the auspices of Boeing and NASA. Funnily enough, the concept is for a 450-seater airliner, which would be 20 per cent more fuel and carbon efficient than current designs.
And note the weasel wording of the Times. Naughty BAA has said that newer, "green superjumbo" jets might be flying in greater numbers than the A380 and the latest 747s by 2030 - well, that's plainly rubbish, as the skies are already full of those.
Except they aren't, and they may never be. There are fewer than 30 orders for the new 747-8 airliner, and none will fly before 2010. Airbus's production difficulties with the A380 are well known, and the jet may never capture a big market share - many remain unconvinced about its business case. It doesn't seem unreasonable to say that cheaper, more flexible twinjets as yet unbuilt could be flying from Heathrow in greater numbers than these two specific four-jet monsters, twenty-two years from now.
Furthermore, current aircraft designs aren't yet making use of the new fuel-efficient engines now under development, either. Last week's Farnborough Air Show saw the Geared Turbofan make its debut appearance. GTFs use a gearbox rather than a fixed shaft to link their compressors and turbines, allowing better fuel efficiency - perhaps as much as 12 per cent.
There is also serious development effort going into potentially even more efficient "open rotor" designs. Open rotor engines and new aircraft offer a serious promise that global aviation could expand along the lines of the planned Heathrow expansion and yet not emit any more carbon than now - indeed, emit less. And anyway, by most estimates aviation accounts for less than five per cent of global carbon emissions. It would make a lot more sense to pick on other industries first.
So we aren't really talking about carbon and global climate catastrophe here. If that were the only issue, the only opposition to the Heathrow expansion would be from hardcore Greens, who are opposed to most forms of economic activity when you get down to it, and hence don't command much support.
What we are actually talking about here is noise. Big jets which can lift a lot of people make a lot of noise, and have tighter limits on how many can be flown at a given airport within a given time - that's why the Heathrow debate is centring around them. Noise is the reason that BAA has an actual political fight on its hands, as the vocal property owners of wealthy, economically successful southwest London often feel they have quite enough racket already.
They may very well have a point. But it's at best sloppy thinking to equate noise nimbyism with being "green". Perhaps, if we consider the pain worthwhile for the gain, all of us should come together to choke off UK aviation so as to do our bit towards saving the planet. It isn't at all clear that the rest of us, who don't live near Heathrow, should submit to having brakes put on our national economy just so that local residents can have untroubled barbecues and weekend lie-ins. That benefit is purely for them - but we would all share the costs.
Indeed, if we really care about saving the planet, the answer may be more noise for residents near Heathrow, not less. One reason the new, greener, more fuel-efficient open rotor engines haven't flown so far is that they will probably be a good bit noisier than ordinary ones. Maybe the Heathrow locals - if they are truly green and not just selfish nimbys - should be offering to put up with more noise if it means less fuel burn.
They won't, of course, and it's doubtful if many of us would. But we who don't live near Heathrow probably shouldn't go along with the local noise nimbys' wishes on the grounds that it would be "green" to do so. It wouldn't. Indeed, support for nimbys could actually kill off many kinds of promising green technology, as even Greenpeace would acknowledge.
Quite apart from all that, it would certainly seem likely that Panorama's one-sided, fearmongering Wi-Fi debacle wasn't a one-off. ®