I’ll never see a white elephant fly

There’s much to ponder in last week’s recommendation by UK MPs that their government should back further expansion of Heathrow.

As anyone with even a smidgen of energy literacy knows, there is a huge question mark hanging over the future of mass aviation.

So the question isn’t really whether Heathrow or ‘Boris island’ is the better way to ‘secure Britain’s future as a major air transport hub’. It’s why anyone should still want to keep flogging what looks like a very dead horse.

That’s where things start to get interesting. But first let’s recap why the outlook for civil aviation is increasingly uncertain.


Mass aviation is a creature of liquid fossil fuels. Raw oil is now about four times as expensive as it was 15 years ago. Although the airlines have weathered that move – just about – they can’t go where oil is going next.

That’s to perhaps $150 a barrel, which will happen when the balance of oil demand shifts from the OECD countries to the ‘developing’ countries sometime in the next two years. Head over to Gregor Macdonald’sTerrajoule.US site to read how and why this repricing will take place.

Bear in mind that $100 oil has already caused a significant transfer of oil consumption away from the West, where the per capita rate of oil ‘waste’ (think SUVs and millions of holiday flights) is much higher than in the rest of the world.

The UK is in the initial phase of ‘the long rebalancing’ of its economy. We’re sliding toward lower levels of liquid fossil fuel consumption because that is what we can afford. We can expect commercial flying to decline in line with affordability. In short, the growth projections for air travel in Britain and Europe are mostly pie in the sky.

So where does this leave the national debate about expanding London’s airport capacity? Well there are three ways to look at the glaring disconnect between the expansionist rhetoric and the energy/capital reality on the ground.

  1. The protagonists are all energy-illiterate worshippers of the god of progress, who don’t realise the world has changed.
  2. They’re not bothered about the long-term outlook for UK civil aviation: they’re really angling to cash in on the infrastructure investment bonanza that would be unleashed by airport expansion.
  3. They’ve weighed everything up in private and decided that, between now and the inevitable contraction of airline traffic, the UK/London economies risk losing more if runway capacity isn’t expanded than if we decided to get out of the doomed game gracefully, and sooner rather than later.

There’s a lot of (1) around, and undoubtedly a lot of (2) involved too. But (3) is intriguingly credible. After all, it’s characteristic of bubbles that the majority of players want to stay in the game even when it’s obvious that things are heading for a crunch.

One prize the UK establishment might have its eye on is to own the last major international air hub standing in Europe when flying turns into an elites-only game. The airport that claims that prize will doubtless be – for a while – a real honeypot: a key staging post for those involved in the transfer out of Europe of whatever chunks of knowledge, property and power that still have value to developing economies.

But why they imagine that such a hub would be at Heathrow – poorly connected and on the far side of Europe from the new customers for Europe’s wherewithal – is anyone’s guess. National pride, maybe? How very 18th century.

There’s something cargo cultish about politicians’ touching faith that building runways will keep the planes coming. Are those shining spears of tarmac really all we have left with which to fend off the loss of the rest of Britain’s greatness? Letting go of expansion would be like allowing the ravens to fly away from the Tower of London .… presumably to Frankfurt or Schiphol.

That kind of hubris could conceivably keep the Heathrow expansion panjandrum rolling drunkenly onward for another five or 10 years.

All the same, I hope the UK motoring industry is paying close attention to this issue. Because although Birmingham airport today staked its claim for the hub expansion lolly, this isn’t a fight over runways. It’s a fight over who gets to burn the shrinking oil supply.

Behind its brave, business-as-usual face, the auto business is feeling the heat from too-costly fuel. Only corporates and a relatively small number of private buyers are willing to pay the price of the increasingly frugal new models it produces. Fewer young people see car ownership as a priority. Used car buyers, who outnumber new buyers by 10 to one, struggle with motoring costs.

At some point, the auto industry is going to have to fight back against the airports’ special pleading. If I were the SMMT or the RAC, I’d be making noises to the Government about the very different quid pro quos that operate in motoring and aviation.

Although, motoring still gets plenty of public cash support in the form of road maintenance and improvements, it pays stiff taxes on fuel and vehicles in return. The air cavalry are lobbying for massive public funding for necessary infrastructure (e.g. tunnelling the M25 to allow Heathrow to expand westwards) in return for a paltry airport tax bill and no tax on fuel at all.

I don’t expect the car lobby to let that sleeping dog lie for very much longer.

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