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Tuesday, 20 October 2009

What's it all about?

Manston a.k.a. Kent International Airport is an ex-RAF base in north-east Kent, just west of Ramsgate. It passed from the RAF to Wiggins, then PlaneStation, owners of EUJet (a budget passenger airline). EUJet went bust, and in August 2005 the administrators sold Manston to Infratil, a New Zealand-based multi-national infrastructure investor.

The airport is mainly used for flying clubs, testing and training, and private planes. In 2008, less than 3% of the planes were freight or passenger flights. Infratil's growth plans for Manston are ambitious: 6 million passengers, ½ million tonnes of freight and 103,800 flights annually.

There is a "Section 106 Agreement" (S106) between Infratil and Thanet District Council (TDC) which describes what Infratil can, and can't, do at Manston. The scale of Infratil's planned growth is enough to require the S106 to be renegotiated. The existing S106 was drawn up in 2005, and needs to be renegotiated anyway as its 3 year lifespan has expired. There would be a statutory period of public consultation lasting 6 months. This consultation period has not started (as at: 20th October 2009).

Due to the nature of airports and air travel, many more people have a stake in this than just Infratil and TDC. East Kent residents under the flightpaths, particularly in Ramsgate, but also in the Wantsum villages, Herne Bay, Whitstable and Canterbury will all be affected to some degree. Environmental groups, transport lobbies, government bodies, wildlife groups and others all have an interest. The non-partisan KIA Consultative Committee provides a valuable forum for all the interested parties to meet and discuss.

A key issue for local residents is noise. Obviously, the nearer a plane is (in both distance and height) the louder the noise; and if everything else is particularly quiet (at night) it will sound louder anyway. Which is why flightpaths, plane heights, flight times and monitoring matter so much to so many, and keep appearing on this site.

TDC have a duty to do their best to regenerate and energise Thanet, which includes some of the most deprived areas of Kent. Infratil have spent £30m on Manston so far, and have yet to make their shareholders a profit. All the East Kent residents would welcome something that benefits them. We need to find a win-win-win solution.

This is not a small decision, and the consequences will affect tens of thousands of people for years, if not decades. It's worth taking the trouble to get this one right. And everyone needs to think in the short, medium and long term.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Telling it like it is

As an antidote to the heavily skewed, unfounded and wishful PR prattle that the ever-supportive Brazier presented to Louise Ellman (chair of the Transport Committee), we sent her the following:
Julian Brazier has written to you claiming that there is widespread public support for more use to be made of Manston airport (Kent International Airport). There isn’t.

Thanet County Council supports the airport and so does Kent County Council. Canterbury City Council, who represents a large constituency under the flight path, has significant concerns about the way in which the airport is regulated and monitored now, let alone what the impact might be were it to expand.
The last public consultation about Manston was carried out by MORI in Thanet in 2005. Focus groups included those most affected by the flight path, i.e. Ramsgate residents. Of those:
  • 67% opposed airport expansion;
  • 78% thought noise and air pollution would be big problems;
  • 90% wanted night flying hours to be restricted.
Thanet District Council says more recent public consultation shows support for the airport. However, they have declined to release the report that would demonstrate this, even when requested to do so by the statutory body set up to lead consultation on Manston, i.e. the Kent International Airport Consultative Committee. Claims that there is widespread support can not be substantiated. Claims that there is widespread opposition can.

Roger Gale MP and Paul Carter (Leader of Kent County Council) are fond of saying that Manston has one of the longest runways in the UK (it hasn’t, thirteen other airports outstrip it) and that it is surrounded on three sides by sea so the impact on people is minimal. A quick look at the map will show you that the runway runs almost exactly East to West. Depending on the wind, planes come in on a straight line either over Ramsgate (pop. 39,600) or Herne Bay (pop. 35,200). That’s a lot of unhappy people on the flight path.

In a recent meeting of Herne Bay councillors, there was unanimous cross-party support for the proposal to get a more balanced debate going about the pros and cons of Manston and to prevent the impact of the airport on Herne Bay from getting worse. This agreement transcended the normal party political divide and can not in any way be described as support for Manston to expand. Local opposition is in response to a number of issues:
  • Manston operates in an unregulated and unmonitored way, with sub standard noise monitoring; a willingness to allow unscheduled flights to land any time day or night; and an unwillingness to levy fines for planes that land outside the S.106 agreement because the Chief Executive does not want the airport to get a reputation as being “difficult”. I can substantiate all this with emails from the airport itself should you need to see more
  • Neither Ramsgate nor Herne Bay is successful. They are both slightly shabby seaside towns whose most sustainable hope for a more prosperous future is tourism. Nobody will visit and spend money in a town or on a beach under a flight path
  • Manston’s PR machine talks about the hundreds to thousands of jobs that will be created if the airport expands. Close inspection shows the vast majority of these jobs to be indirect jobs – jobs that already exist elsewhere in the UK which Manston will notionally be supporting by purchasing fuel etc. The number of real jobs that could be created is tiny. So, we have an airport whose growth plans will blight many lives whilst possibly creating a small number of jobs. As an economic decision about the best thing to do for an area, the airport makes no sense
  • The airport is built right on top of an important aquifer. Whilst the Environment Agency has recognised how critical it is to preserve this aquifer (you will be aware that the South East is the UK area with the biggest mismatch between population size and available water), the airport’s owners have done nothing to ensure that the correct measures are in place to protect it from pollution. It is already contaminated and an expanded airport will worsen the situation considerably
  • None of the infrastructure exists to support expansion. A single carriageway road comes out of the airport and the nearest public transport is three miles’ drive away
  • The airport has been in private ownership for years. Two previous owners have failed to make a go of it. Infratil are still losing money there after four years of ownership. It’s just not a sensible place to have an airport.
So, there is no widespread local support for this airport. What you are hearing is the view of the few that have access to the media - MPs and the airport’s PR consultants. If you tap into the world to which ordinary members of the public have access - blogs; parish councils; local environmental groups – you will see massive opposition to the airport. I would love to see a more balanced debate on the airport’s future instead of being told by politicians who have not consulted the public that we all support the airport. Anything you can do to encourage this would be great.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Older, better flight paths

A red letter day, dear reader. One of my undercover researchers (codename: Casey) has unearthed a map of the routes agreed between Wiggins and TDC many moons ago. Apparently one of the lead negotiators from the TDC side was Cllr Harrison. These 'people-friendly' routes didn't make it into the Section 106 Agreement due to an oversight by, er, Cllr Harrison. Shame.

These routes were mentioned at a meeting held at Manston, chaired by the omnipresent Cllr Harrison. I got the impression that these route maps had somehow wisped away to nothingness, lost forever to the eyes of mortals. I'm pleased to have sight of them at last. I expect Infratil and TDC will be thrilled, too. Now that they don't have to go through the rigmarole of (re)negotiating effective noise abatement routes, they can use the time they've saved to install fixed noise monitors under the newly agreed routes.

The carefully drawn coloured lines on the map are explained by the accompanying colour-coded key.

(Click it to big it.)
The red route labelled 1 is the standard westward instrument departure route: by the time the plane is doubling back on itself and heading south, it's supposed to be at 3,000 feet and climbing. Route 2 is the alternative westward route; route 3 is the standard eastward instrument departure route. All of the other lines and boxes are explained in the key.

(Click it to big it.)
What I find interesting about this is that it so clearly shows what is achievable. The planes can fly people-friendly routes. So what do you think the odds are of anything resembling this appearing in the next S106 Agreement?

Thursday, 8 October 2009

YES WE CAN: make it work

Profitable. Sustainable. Sound commercial proposition. Good corporate citizen. These are just some of the good things that happen when you work with, rather than against, those around you.

It's not rocket science. It's not even science. It's sense.

Infratil have paid a lot for Manston, and have spent a lot on it since. To see any kind of return on their investment, they need Manston to generate a steady and healthy profit from the air traffic it handles.

BAA, the country's largest airport operator was recently deemed to have a near-monopoly, and has been forced to sell off some of its airports in order to increase competition. The increased competition will bring prices down as airports fight for market share. There won't be any plump, lucrative contracts left - making money will rely on the sheer volume of traffic.

Basic business logic and a few simple facts from the real world lead us to the conclusion that there's going to be a lot more planes over East Kent. This is the time to get our heads together and figure how to manage this so that it works out as well as possible. Recently we had a bit of a mad flurry when Infratil thought they were going to get a cargo contract from BA - everything was done in a rush and nobody was very happy with it.

Thanet District Council are planning ahead for how to deal with night flight requests. Infratil have set out their MasterPlan for the airport. Any change in the pattern of use of the airport, or growth in traffic, will mean that the S106 agreement has to be re-negotiated. The S106 is a bilateral agreement thrashed out between a few dozen people (Thanet Councillors and the senior management of Infratil) but the consequences of the agreement will affect the lives of tens of thousands of people for years to come.

YES WE CAN: sleep

Absolutely no night flights. Not scheduled flights. Not chartered flights. No night flights. Diversions from other airports (due to emergencies, bad weather and so on), humanitarian missions or national crisis are fine. Obviously. But otherwise... absolutely no night flights.

I hope that's clear.

A plane coming in to land makes a LOT of noise. At night, when everything else is that much quieter, the sound stands out against the reduced background noise, so seems louder, and is more disruptive. This much is self-evident.

Even modern planes are noisy, and even when they're relatively high up. An enquiry at Stansted in 2007 took evidence of noise complaints that came from a roughly rectangular area 35 miles by 60 miles around the airport. The sound footprint of each aircraft is large; the combined impact of all an airport's traffic taken together is huge.

The noise itself is stressful, as is the loss of sleep - a 10 decibel increase of noise at night raises the risk of hypertension by 14%. On health grounds for all those within earshot, night flights are a non-starter. From the point of view of quality of life, ditto.

Economics: the aviation group of the Local Government Association reports that “no evidence has been produced by the Government or the aviation industry to justify claims that night flights have an overall economic benefit”. That sentence is worth re-reading out loud and thinking about carefully. The LGA, which covers the whole country, but concentrates on local interests and priorities has a 'Strategic Aviation Special Interest Group'. They've done their homework, they've done their sums, and they've come to the conclusion that night flights don't make economic sense.

Matt Clarke (Infratil's Chief Exec) has said that Manston is operating at a fraction of its capacity. Surely there can be no need for them to operate night flights. As there's plenty of available daytime capacity, that should be used up first.

Night flights: unhealthy, uneconomic, unwanted and unnecessary.

Altitude thickness

In the Olden Days (2005), Manston’s radar wasn’t good enough to tell them exactly where their planes were. They couldn’t tell the exact height because they only had Primary Surveillance Radar.
In the Modern Age (2009) they also have Secondary Surveillance Radar (they buy a feed from the MoD) so they can now tell the height of planes as they pass over Herne Bay. And elsewhere, presumably.

But they don’t record it.
This is perplexing me. Given the aviation industry’s healthy obsession with safety statistics and analysis, I would have thought that recording the actual position, speed and direction of all aircraft within detectable range of any airport would be encouraged to the point of compulsion.
This begs a question: when someone (like me) complains to KIA about low, noisy, off-route planes (as I have), how can they possibly be so certain that the plane was at an appropriate height, given that they have no record of it?
Another question: for a presumably modest outlay, Infratil would be able to to publish clear, accurate information about flight patterns, like this example from Luton Airport. How can they resist? It's a very effective way of letting everyone know exactly what's happening.
Oops. Did I just answer my own question?

Airport expansion COSTS jobs

Here's a press release from the nice people at AEF. (Aviation Environment Federation specialise in the wider environmental impacts and implications of air travel.) Click here for details and full report.
This is a cracker! Jobs created at and near airports are heavily outnumbered by jobs lost in the domestic tourism and hospitality industries due to everyone disappearing abroad for 50p with EasyRyan.
A new study of the employment provided by airports and airlines from the economist Brendon Sewill concludes that the Government should stop giving people false hopes about the number of jobs which would be created by the expansion of airports. The study, published today by the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), shows Government claims that airport expansion will help create thousands of new jobs to help the country through the recession to be based on unreliable statistics. In fact, it finds that if the expansion results in more UK tourists going abroad then the forecast growth in air travel is likely to lead to a net loss of jobs in this country.

Sewill shows that the old rule of thumb that 1 million extra passengers using an airport is likely to create 1,000 extra jobs is no longer valid. The efficiency of low-cost airlines means that far fewer jobs are created by airport expansion than in the past. The move towards low-cost airports, where modern technology replaces manual jobs, will accelerate that trend.

The study reveals that, between 1998 and 2004, when the number of passengers using UK airports rose by 30%, the number of people employed directly at airports went up by only 3%. Research by York Aviation, a consultancy close to the aviation industry, found that despite a predicted increase of 110% in passenger numbers at the country’s airports between 2004 and 2030 jobs would increase by only 21%.

Sewill argues that the York Aviation research takes no account of the number of jobs that will be lost to the UK if the number of Britons holidaying abroad continues to rise. Last year the UK’s aviation tourism deficit - the difference between what British air passengers spend abroad and visitors by air spend in the UK - was about £17 billion. That deficit is at present costing the country around 900,000 jobs.

The Sewill study concludes that, because most of the predicted expansion is to cater for UK citizens going abroad, the Government’s plans to double the amount of air travel is likely to lead to a further net loss of 860,000 jobs by 2030.

Brendon Sewill said: “The Government, aided by the aviation industry, is perpetrating a hoax that airport expansion is vital to the economy and will help us though the recession. Councillors and planning officers are being misled by exaggerated claims that the expansion of their local airports will create lots of extra jobs. For example, ten years ago Manchester Airport claimed that its second runway would create 50,000 extra jobs whereas in practice employment at the airport has increased by only 4,000. The Government should admit that - when spending abroad is taken into account - its airport expansion plans could actually produce a serious net loss of jobs”.