8 April 2003

Bird threat blow to £13bn airport plan

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

Plans for an airport at Cliffe, north Kent, suffered a critical blow yesterday when a Government report concluded that the site would carry unacceptable risks of aircraft crashing because of bird strikes.

The proposal for a £13 billion four-runway hub at Cliffe has been supported by many local authorities and some environmentalists on the grounds that its remote location would minimise the impact of aircraft noise and pollution.

But a study commissioned by the Department for Transport found that the presence of up to 200,000 birds in the area would create a safety risk more than three times as great as at any existing airport.

Even with "aggressive bird management" in place, the report judged that it was "not possible" to reduce the risk for all species to an acceptable level.

The 11 species thought likely to pose the biggest threat to airliners were the great black-backed gull, greylag goose, redshank, mute swan, cormorant, herring gull, shelduck, wigeon, lapwing, oystercatcher and curlew.

The main danger arises when birds flying in flocks, or even singly, are sucked into engines, causing them to fail. The risk is particularly acute just after take-off, especially for twin-engined aircraft.

Worldwide, there have been three commercial jet crashes caused by bird strikes in the last 15 years.

The most recent incident in Britain involved an RAF Jaguar, which crashed near Dumfries in Scotland three years ago after flying into a flock of birds and losing both engines.

The department's study calculated that between three and nine "damaging" bird strikes would occur at Cliffe every year. Incidents would cause the total loss of one aircraft about every 200 years, compared with an average of 650 years at 10 of Britain's busiest existing airports.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the report supported its view that the Cliffe project was a "non-starter".

Mark Avery, conservation director, said: "To build a four-runway airport in the middle of thousands of migrating birds would be sheer folly. The Government would face an impossible task trying to stop so many species that have been coming here for thousands of years."

Alistair Darling, Transport Secretary, said the research was "clearly important", and would be carefully considered.

Transport Department officials said the Cliffe option could not be ruled out at this stage because the consultation process continues until June. The consultation also proposes alternative plans for extra runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

A White Paper containing decisions on new runways is due before the end of the year.