LONDON May 29 A former Concorde pilot is at the centre of Britain's long-running debate over airport expansion, with an idea he first had in 1988 that he believes offers a way out of a political quagmire.
Heathrow Hub is based on William "Jock" Lowe's idea to extend the runways at London's Heathrow airport, the world's third busiest by passenger numbers, thereby adding capacity for more planes without building a new runway, an issue which has proved controversial in the past.
Lowe is one of an office-less team of four who spent 20,000 pounds to patent the Heathrow runway extension idea, then spent countless hours developing it into a full-blown submission that is now one of three options shortlisted for airport expansion.
Britain's Airport Commission is due to make a final recommendation on where and how to expand London's airport capacity by next summer. Along with Heathrow Hub are plans by Heathrow Airport and Gatwick Airport.
Lawmakers and business leaders agree that new British runways are an economic necessity. But the idea of adding them in London is unpopular with many voters, who worry about noise, pollution and safety.
Passions ran high during Britain's 2010 election over a new runway at Heathrow, and supporters of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in affluent west London helped make sure the new coalition government dropped a plan by the previous government to build a third runway there.
The Heathrow Hub proposal, which is not backed by Heathrow Airport proper, comes in at 12 billion pounds ($20 billion), 5 billion pounds cheaper than the Heathrow alternative. It could be built two years earlier, by 2023, and its backers say it will avoid affecting any new areas with noise.
What's not to like? Should it be selected, Heathrow Hub would be the first airport in the world to have an extra long runway where planes take off on one half and land on the other, prompting safety concerns.
Lowe said the worries were unfounded. The proposal has been backed up by safety reports and Heathrow Hub would not be too different from how Madrid's airport operates. There, planes take off and land on runways with little separation at an angle.
What made 70-year old Lowe given up his retirement?
"I got annoyed and frustrated at the rubbish that was being talked about," he said in an interview on Thursday.
His top complaint was that the plans being mooted for new airport capacity were not in his opinion politically deliverable.
London Mayor Boris Johnson proposes building a new airport east of the city on the Isle of Grain, at a cost of up to 112 billion pounds. The government-appointed commission will decide whether to shortlist it by the end of 2014.
Lowe believes the much-publicised idea of an alternative to Heathrow has begun to work in the airport's favour, with a shift in local opinion underway.
"He's (Johnson) actually woken up the local authorities and the people around Heathrow to the fact that it might close," he said. "Their stance was no expansion, but the alternative is no airport there."
Work on the Heathrow Hub proposal has been funded by four rich individuals with links to London's financial sector, including former JP Morgan banker Ian Hannam, who on Wednesday lost an appeal against a fine for market abuse.
The potential 12 billion-pound Heathrow Hub project could be primarily funded by private investors, not the state, the team and their backers believe. They could be in for a windfall of their own if their scheme is recommended by the commission.
"We're the proposer, not the developer," Lowe said. If they win, they'd sell the intellectual property rights to Heathrow Airport, he said.
"None of us went into this to make huge, huge sums. There would be, I'm sure, the basis for a very reasonable and friendly discussion with Heathrow Airport."
Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited is co-owned by Spanish infrastructure firm Ferrovial, its largest shareholder with a 25 percent share. Partners include Qatar Holding, China Investment Corp. and the Government of Singapore Investment Corp. ($1 = 0.5982 British Pounds) (Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Larry King)