Heathrow flight limits to be scrapped next year?

More than a thousand additional planes a week will could be flying over London under government plans to tear up a commitment to limit the number of flights at Heathrow. Large areas of West London will be blighted by a proposal to use both runways for landings for much of the day, according to a report in today’s Times newspaper.

The Times says that Ministers intend to scrap the existing policy of managing Heathrow’s two runways to give people under the flight path some respite from aircraft noise for half the day. At present, one runway is used for landings and the other for take-offs, with their roles switching at 15:00 each day.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is expected to issue a consultation paper next Easter proposing the abolition of runway alternation. It would be replaced by ‘mixed mode’, under which the runways would effectively be treated as separate airports. Planes would land simultaneously from the same direction, with passengers able to see another aircraft on a parallel course only a few hundred metres away.

BAA, which owns Heathrow, believes mixed mode will raise the airport’s capacity by between 15 and 20%, or by around 80,000 flights a year. It had told the planning inquiry into Terminal 5 that it was ‘firmly opposed’ to mixed mode, but has since changed its position. BAA is also campaigning for the removal of the cap of 480,000 flights a year, which was imposed by the inquiry inspector as a planning condition for Terminal 5.

This year, Heathrow is expected to handle more 470,000 flights and 68 million passengers. Terminal 5 will be able to accommodate a further 30 million passengers, but the extra capacity cannot be fully exploited without lifting the cap on flights.

The Government has proposed a third runway at Heathrow, but this would not open until 2015 at the earliest. BAA believes mixed mode could be introduced by 2010. A spokesman said: ‘Next year’s consultation should certainly look at lifting the flights cap. Heathrow is a strategically important national asset and getting more people to use it is good for the British economy.’

‘But that has to be balanced against the interests of people under the flightpath. This has got to be a Government decision, not one made by BAA.’

Moving to mixed mode may also require changes to the 4 stacks in which aircraft circle while waiting for permission to land. National Air Traffic Services, the air traffic control authority, is studying whether the stacks will have to be moved. This could affect tens of thousands of homes on the outskirts of London.

Last night HACAN ClearSkies, which represents people living under flightpaths, accused BAA of colluding with the Government to scrap the cap on flights at Heathrow. John Stewart, chairman of the group, said: ‘We must keep runway alternation because it makes life just about bearable for tens of thousands of people west of Heathrow. Without it, they will face planes every 90 seconds from early morning to late evening.’

Next year’s consultation is likely to offer several options, including allowing mixed mode only in the early morning and late afternoon when the airport is busiest. But ClearSkies believes it will only be a matter of time before rising demand for flights prompts a further relaxation of the rules to allow mixed mode all day.

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