Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Airport Expansion Reframed - It’s Not About Boris

On Tuesday 17th of December, I listened to the whole of the Today programme on R4. I hadn’t intended to do so, 30 minutes is usually more than enough. But on this morning I wanted to conduct a survey. You see, Heathrow expansion is back on the agenda and in the news, with the publication of the Airport Commission interim report while the Today programme was on air that morning.

So, what is the story here? Is it that the terms of reference of the report, the ways in which the investigation is framed, are woefully flawed? Is the story one of the tension between what our politicians know about anthropogenic climate change and what expanding airports means for that? Or is it that Boris Johnson’s idea wasn’t shortlisted in the report? Yep. Apparently the story is about Boris: he was all over the BBC being interviewed. Its a personal story about a celebrity and his hopes for the future. How do you feel this morning Boris?

The story is not, it seems, about Climate Change. No BBC interviews on the morning of the 17th with Monbiot, or Lynas, or Mayer Hillman. No interviews with Tony Juniper or Caroline Lucas. Only a few months after the publication of the IPCC report, should this not be seen as a fundamental abdication of journalistic responsibility? I’ll return to this.

Hub and Spoke Hubbub

You might have noticed that all parties to the discussions are now employing a particular buzzword: HUB. We need a hub airport, we’re told. The hub here is drawn from the metaphorical invocation of a wheel, comprised of a hub and spokes. Of course, real wheels tend to have rims too, so that they might actually function as a wheel, but lets not be picky here... Rims aside, the hub and spoke metaphor is now popular in management circles. People argue for a hub and spoke approach to hospital provision: here regional general hospitals covering everything are identified as unsustainable and therefore it is proposed that we move to a system of central hub hospitals located in major cities, and smaller, less specialised, spoke hospitals. Here the metaphor actually seems to do some useful work, whether one ultimately agrees with the policy or not. But like all new metaphors that seem to serve some useful and maybe even persuasive purpose, they then pass like a virus via managerialist arteries (spokes?) to other areas where they might be less perspicuous and better characterised not as illustrative metaphors but empty metaphors employed as buzz words, designed to motivate by stealth. Their employment stops being genuinely illustrative and helpful and becomes purely rhetorical and designed to control.

Some universities are now employing the metaphor, and have designated “student hubs”, which can be anything from where students tend to congregate for food and coffee outside of class time to where the administrative support can be accessed. It generally isn’t, as one might have reasonably assumed, where they do their learning (lectures, seminars and the library).

So, we’re told that Heathrow needs a third runway if it is to remain a genuine hub airport, as its European competitors—Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Schiphol, and so on—expand. Similarly, Boris tells us that his favoured solution to the requirement for a genuine hub airport is an airport in the Thames estuary. So, the idea is that we need an airport which will operate as a central hub, and be connected to the regional spokes (still no mention of rims): live in the North of England and want to go to Delhi, New York or Johannesburg? Then you take a flight to the hub from one of the spoke airports and from there continue onwards to your destination.

Hub as Constraint and Distraction

But there is a danger of our being artificially constrained by the widespread adoption of this metaphor (maybe that’s the idea?). Why, we might ask, do we need ONE hub airport, thereby designating other UK airports as spoke airports? Why not have a dispersed, complex hub; that is to say, a hub comprised of a number of airports which have good ground transportation links? It’s not like the UK is a large country where ground travel between airports can take days. But neither is the UK as small as Holland or Belgium, where the rationale for a number of large regional airports, rather than one central one, is difficult to defend.

Indeed, we might also ask why there is a need for a hub at all? Is this something the relatively strong and stable Nordic economies of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland consider to be a requirement? The advocates of expansion in the UK repeatedly suggest that being the country with the major Western European hub airport is not only good for, but essential to, a strong economy. But in what way? If we in the UK go ahead and build the pre-eminent Western European hub airport, and take traffic from Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris, are the economies of Holland, Germany and France doomed to go into free-fall? Or is it just that there will be shorter queues at Schiphol? It’s not as if those transiting through a Thames Estuary hub airport or a three-runway Heathrow will be forced to take a 10 day break in London and spend lots of money. The vast majority of those who transfer flights at the hub will never leave the transit lounge, even if the Tories were willing to grant them a visa.

In addition to constraining our thoughts here, might the metaphor be serving to distract us? I mean is it clear to you that if you live in the North of England and want to fly to Delhi, that taking a flight from Leeds and making a connection in Schiphol is disadvantageous to you? I mean, sure, ideally a direct flight from Leeds to Delhi would be best for you, but short of that, if you have to make a connection, in what way might this trip be enhanced by the transit airport being Heathrow as opposed to Schiphol? Or what about Manchester-Dubai-Mumbai? I cannot see what is lost by the traveller who doesn’t pass through Heathrow or the Thames estuary. What does it matter for the traveller where their connection is located, so long as it is smooth and the terminal is comfortable?

In Whose Interests?

So what really is the purpose of having a hub airport? Whose interests does it serve? Well, obviously it is in the interests of the owners of Heathrow. They get to have more people to sell more things to and more airlines paying to land at their airport. One might argue it benefits the people for whom the proposed hub airport is their local airport, but then, subtract from this group of people, who are close enough to use the airport as their departure point, those of them whose lives are blighted by the increased local noise and air pollution because they live in the flight path. So really, who are the beneficiaries?

So it’s not you that the advocates of the hub airports are concerned for. Your air travel is not dependent on an expanded Heathrow or an airport being built in the Thames estuary and opening sometime around the year 2035. It is big business, the 1%, the users of tax havens, and in particular the world’s leading tax haven, the City of London. That’s who it matters to. That’s the hub we should be concerned about.

Accepting the Frames

The dogma of economic growth, which frames this whole discussion, that implicitly sets the terms of reference of the Airport Commission report, is non-obligatory as a model for a well functioning economic system, unsustainable in a world of finite resources and a fragile biosphere, and has no necessary relationship to the well being of a nation’s population.

Why then was the story today about which hub, and about Boris and his pet project? Why was it not about Climate Change and the very real need to reduce air travel? The answer is to be found in the extent to which the British media accept the frame, and if they see it, if they acknowledge it, they do so while believing it to be obligatory. While the science of climate change can be questioned and side-lined by that media, the dogma of the market and economic growth frames every discussion.

Reject the frame.

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