“We are cleared for take-off,” airline pilots like to announce when the plane finally reaches the front of the departure queue. Passengers who have been sitting for two hours in a titanium tube heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit heave a sigh of relief and mutter, “We’re off, at last”.
But no one was saying that in London yesterday, not even after the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport. That third runway has been, controversially, in the legislative queue for as long as most people can remember. So long, in fact, that most of the prospective passengers who longed to hear the words “We’re cleared for take-off” have either fallen into bewildered dotage or have become so bored with the debate that they no longer care less one way or the other. That of course excludes those unfortunate residents who actually live where the runway will be built.
I have no particular view on the economic arguments about a third runway, nor can I arouse myself to acquire one since I doubt that it will be built in my lifetime anyway – if it is ever built.
Of course I once also confidently predicted that man would not walk on the moon in my lifetime, and that Communism would eventually prevail over democracy in my lifetime. I even once expressed doubt that a tunnel would ever be built under the English Channel. One can be horribly wrong about these things, as quite possibly I am now.
But the generation behind mine will probably live to see a third Heathrow runway. For all I know, they may in good time see fourth and fifth runways, and ad infinitum, until the noble and ancient metropolis of London is reduced to a small collection of tourist attractions visible only from the windows of aircraft travelling around the surrounding network of runways waiting to take off.
Motorists who now complain about congestion on the M25, the increasingly strangulated highway that encircles London, will be waxing about it nostalgically when they get caught in the traffic heading for Terminal 10 on Runway 15 on the M50.
Perhaps the real answer to Britain’s apparent requirement to compete with the ever-expanding air traffic facilities in Frankfurt and Amsterdam – which will soon have airports that dwarf the cities themselves – is to turn south-east England into one vast airport hub. Under this plan, the entire population of the south-east would have to be relocated to those more northerly parts of the country that are relatively under-populated. This would allow the counties of Kent, Surrey and Berkshire to be turned into one vast airport. If nothing else, such a plan would show those supposedly enterprising Germans and Dutchmen – as history has repeatedly shown – how intrepid we Brits can be when our backs are to the wall.
Meanwhile, though, back on terra firma, the Commons vote was greeted less by rejoicing by the victors, or the wailing of the losers, but by an almost universal scepticism that the Third Runway will ever be built. The doubts are entirely warranted. This is one of those projects that define a generation. It has been debated for a decade or more. It will take a decade to construct the thing. And construction will only start after a coming decade of local hearings, official enquiries into this and that controversy, of demonstrations and of court cases brought by those residents who suffer the misfortune to live in houses standing in the way. The most prominent of these will probably be a little old lady of ninety-nine living in a cottage with roses round the door who has never ridden in a motor car, let alone an airplane.
The most vocal opponent of the Third Runway has been no less an advocate for modernisation than Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who favoured instead the building of a brand new airport on the mudflats of the Thames Estuary. Most people pooh-poohed this idea as absurd, even going so far as to call Boris a mad visionary with an inflated sense of self-importance and delusions of grandeur. They may be wrong about the idea, but they are almost certainly right about him.
What Boris actually thought of the Commons vote may not be known for some time because he chose to skip the debate to fly off to the Middle East on a mission that apparently could not be delayed. No doubt peace in that troubled region is more important than a mere strip of reinforced tarmac in Berkshire.
Perhaps Boris’s absence will prove to be the one tangible benefit of the Third Runway: the putting paid, once and for all, to his prime ministerial ambitions.