Istanbul’s gleaming and expanding airport is a symbol of a nation going places ...
... Heathrow is not,
The other night we were filling in time at Istanbul airport, and I was watching an official dart around on one of those new Segway gizmos. Have you seen one? They are extraordinary. It was as though his feet had grown wheels. This way and that he sheepdogged the passengers, twisting and curvetting and generally running rings round them like some Spanish midfielder.
“What a poser !” I exclaimed. “He’s just showing off. He doesn’t need that thing at all.” And then he pushed down the stick and he shot off into the distance like Usain Bolt – and we understood why he was equipped with electric feet.
There is a scene in From Russia With Love when James Bond arrives at what was Yesilkoy airport – with only one terminal, looking like a small whitewashed suburban bungalow, an inferior version of Biggin Hill. Those days are gone, my friends. Today’s Ataturk International is colossal.
It is more colossal than an American shopping mall, and that is saying something. Gleaming marble concourses dwindle into the distance, hedged around by luscious watch and chocolate shops, and that’s why you need a Segway to get around. As I watched that Turkish official zooming off through the crowds, I had the perfect image of the scale, the dynamism and the technological optimism of the Turkish economy.
Owing to some foul-up, we had a day to kill in Istanbul, and I had a chance to check out the mood of a city I first visited 25 years ago. We walked through the garment district and saw businesses that were patently flooded with roubles and Middle-Eastern money. We saw the spanking new hotels on the Bosporus, the lidos full of beer and bikinis, and we saw how in some parts of the city the skyscrapers now compete with the minarets to provide the distinctive image of the Istanbul skyline.
As we took in the symptoms of an economy now coming strongly out of recession – and growing at 11 per cent – I had an inkling about a modern geopolitical conundrum. Some of us have been arguing for years that it would be good for Turkey, and good for Europe, if Turkey were to join the EU. So it has been slightly dismaying, over the same period, to see how the Turks themselves have apparently become more apathetic on the question – if not positively opposed. As we looked around booming Istanbul, I could kind of see their point.
Atatürk — Istanbul’s international airport
Why should they submit to the rule of the Eurocrats, when Turkish businesses and other interests are now starting to gain ground across the Middle East and in the former Soviet Asian republics ? And why should they feel they have anything to learn from European transport infrastructure, when you compare the glories of Ataturk International with Heathrow ?
You want to know why we had a day in Istanbul ? You want to know why we missed our connection ? Because of Heathrow. On the instrument-groaning roof of one of those overpopulated buildings in west London, some aerial or radar had succumbed to the wrong kind of rain and for an hour and a half no plane could leave. Heathrow was the problem because Heathrow is a doomed daily attempt to pour a quart into a pint pot and, with our hub international airport already running at 99 per cent capacity, we need a radical solution.
Every week I meet businessmen who think the Government will in the end be forced to break its promise and go ahead with a third runway. And every time I tell those distinguished businessmen that this Government will not, and cannot, do any such thing. To build another runway, slap bang in the middle of the west London suburbs, would be an act of environmental barbarism – hugely increasing airborne and vehicular congestion, and eroding the quality of life for millions of people.
Nor is high-speed rail anything like the solution, not when pork-barrel politics will force the trains (if they ever arrive and if the tracks ever get built) to make so many stops en route to Scotland that you end up with low-speed trains on high-speed tracks. And, as the Prime Minister and his entourage have just demonstrated, you cannot conveniently approach India by high-speed rail ; and given that 99 per cent of the population of India have yet to board an aircraft ; and given all that has just been said about the need to increase trade and communications with that country ; and given that there is every reason to think the British demand for air travel will continue to grow over the next 30 years as it has over the last 30 ; it is obvious that the current policy of no new runways anywhere in the South East is utterly ridiculous.
Heathrow — London’s international airport
Of course the good people of Sussex will object to a new runway at Gatwick, and the same points will doubtless be made against any expansion of Luton, Stansted or any other terrestrial location in the vicinity of London.
That is why some people are arguing for a clean, green 24-hour hub airport that could be built in the Thames estuary, far from human habitation, with no more threat to bird life than there is at Heathrow. I don’t know if they are correct. But we are surely right to look at it seriously.
Planes are becoming ever cleaner and greener. In 1985 the average passenger aircraft used eight litres of fuel per passenger per 100 km. That is now down to three litres, and falling, and in the next 20 years we will have vast flying wings, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers and saving 40 per cent on fuel. Wouldn’t it be utterly insane if they can land everywhere else in the world except Britain ?
Look at the potential for growth at Schiphol, Paris, Frankfurt – our immediate economic rivals – all with more runways than Heathrow. And even if the Government were so mad and bad as to break its word and build a third runway at Heathrow, that would still not be enough.
Ataturk International already has three runways, and they are planning a fourth. We cannot, to coin a phrase, go on like this. It is time for vision.
Boris Johnson writes for The Daily Telegraph