Flights of fancy

Call me a cynic, but I'm willing to bet the upcoming consultations on expanding Heathrow airport don't halt the government's madcap plans to lay tarmac all over west London. It's not that I don't trust the public to make the "right" decision; more that whenever the aviation industry asks the questions it gets the result it wanted, even if it contradicts every other survey.

Pro-expansion lobby group Future Heathrow recently published a Populus survey which shows surprising support for Heathrow expansion. They polled 1,000 residents from the west London boroughs that comprise the 2M group, and discovered 56% supported ending runway alternation (switching the runway used for take-offs at 3pm, to give locals respite from aircraft noise). This contradicted last year's ICM poll by the Mayor of London, which found only 26% supported ending alternation. Begging the question: why did the industry survey get the results it did?

Getting the right answers means asking the right questions, and this is a textbook example. Although describing how switching runways reduces the noise impact on local communities, the questionnaire makes no reference to ending alternation. It only asks residents if they support "the more efficient use of Heathrow's existing runways so that more flights could take off from, and land at the airport," a phrase couched in positive-sounding terms designed to elicit support. The ICM poll explained the full effects of switching, and made clear that "mixed mode" would mean an end to runway alternation and an increase in noise. No wonder fewer people supported it.

It's not the first time the industry has asked questionable questions. In 2005 residents of Uttlesford, Essex, were surprised to be door-stepped by Populus, asking (pdf) about the expansion of Stansted airport. Those who took part were asked a number of questions designed to generate false positives from even the most oppositional resident. "Even my interviewer acknowledged that the questions were not neutral," said one participant. "I used to work in marketing and I know a distorted questionnaire when I see one," said another.

The survey started simply enough, but rapidly became unnecessarily confusing. "Do you agree or disagree that BAA has come to the right decision in choosing the preferred option (Option A in mixed mode - the eastern central parallel runway) for the location of a second runway at Stansted?" asked one question, despite not explaining what the other options were or how "the preferred option" would impact those unfortunate enough to live near the airport.

The fun continues: "If you disagree with BAA's choice, is there another option you think we should have preferred?" followed by a list of incomprehensible and unexplained options (option B in mixed mode, option B in segregated mode, option C in mixed mode, etc). Participants were asked to rate them on a scale of one to six, requiring exceptional recall of the complicated proposals and the comparative effects of implementing them.

To be fair to BAA, they did consider some of the impacts of expansion: while "thinking about some of the benefits of a second runway," residents were asked to rate suggested positive outcomes from one to five. No reference was made to negative impacts of expansion. Also notably absent from a question on the "environmental effects" was any reference to climate change or CO2 emissions, although "landscaping around the airport" was covered, relieving many who were concerned about a dearth of rhododendrons.

The survey concluded by asking residents to consider five statements, and to agree or disagree with them. Normal practise is to mix up some positives with negatives, but BAA instead chose five fantastic statements about the benefits of expansion. Most galling was the suggestion that "a second runway at Stansted will improve the area in which I live," again those polled complained that there was no option to disagree with the expansion; just statements about it.

After local residents objected publicly to the manipulative poll, BAA surprised everyone by going on the offensive. Communications director Mark Pendlington mocked the Stop Stansted Expansion campaign, justifying their decision not to include a "no runway" option by declaring: "the government's aviation white paper stated the first new runway should be built at Stansted," and using a reference in the white paper to overall reductions in
emissions as a rationale for ignoring climate change.

Unfortunately for BAA, their excuses didn't wash; local newspapers railed against the company, and people who had previously sat on the fence began siding with the anti-expansionists. The same is very likely to happen with Heathrow. Two million people in west London will be adversely affected by noise and pollution should the third runway get the go ahead and they are going to be very angry if they feel they are being manipulated.

Article originally published on on 1st November 2007.