Still Up in the Air?

Will the development of a controversial third runway at Heathrow happen? Will capacity issues be resolved? Mark Broadbent considers the latest on the decades-long UK airport expansion saga.

To expand or not to expand UK airports? Should there be a new runway, new terminals or even a brand new facility? For decades there have been questions lingering over governments who have wrestled with resolving the country's ongoing capacity challenges.

Back in 2016, the UK government accepted a recommendation by the Airports Commission to build a third runway at Heathrow. Two years later, MPs voted overwhelmingly – by 415 votes to 119 – in favour of the proposal.

With expansion proving so controversial, a raft of public consultations have taken place. The airport’s owners, Heathrow Ltd, are expected to submit a final application for the runway to the Planning Inspectorate by the end of this year.

Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, is to review the scheme and make the final ‘go or no-go’ decision, but no date has been set for that outcome.

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An artist’s impression of what a newly expanded Heathrow could look like. All photos Heathrow Ltd


Expansion Options

The latest Civil Aviation Authority data shows 80.8 million travellers passed through Heathrow in 2019, an annual record and the ninth consecutive year that passenger numbers have increased. This compares to 65 million passengers ten years ago, which was up from 61 million a decade before that and 42 million back in 1990.

The Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS), the UK government’s official line on Heathrow expansion adopted in June 2018, says: “Heathrow is operating at capacity today, Gatwick is operating at capacity at peak times, and the whole London airports system is forecast to be full by the mid-2030s.

“With very limited capability at London’s major airports, London is beginning to find that new routes to important long-haul destinations are being set up elsewhere in Europe. This is having an adverse impact on the UK economy and affecting the country’s global competitiveness.”

The Airports Commission was set up by the Coalition Government in 2012 to evaluate how to provide additional capacity. As the subsequent ANPS stated, the commission – reporting three years later – concluded a new northwest runway at Heathrow would offer the greatest strategic and economic benefits.

The alternatives, either extending Heathrow’s existing northern runway (a proposal from a private company, Heathrow Hub Ltd), or building a second runway at Gatwick (proposed by that airport’s owners, Gatwick Airport Ltd), were dismissed. An earlier interim report by the Commission had previously concluded a further option, a new Thames Estuary hub (an idea championed a decade ago by the then London Mayor, now the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson), was unviable.

The ANPS says: “Expansion at Gatwick would not enhance, and would consequently threaten, the UK’s global aviation hub status. Gatwick would largely remain a point to point airport, attracting very few transfer passengers. Heathrow would continue to be constrained, outcompeted by competitor hubs which lure away transfer passengers, further weakening the range and frequency of viable routes.”

The report adds: “At the UK level, there would be significantly fewer long-haul flights [from Gatwick], with long-haul destinations served less frequently. Expansion at Heathrow is the better option to ensure the number of services on existing routes increases and allows airlines to offer more frequent new routes to vital emerging markets.”

The report also cites Heathrow’s “substantial freight handling operation” and said it deals with around 20 times more freight by tonnage than Gatwick Airport, saying: “Expansion at Heathrow will further strengthen the connections of firms from across the UK to international markets.”

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Heathrow’s owners say it will cost £15.6bn to develop the airport.


Further Consultations

The ANPS states the third runway is to be 11,482ft (3,500m) long and enable “at least 260,000 additional air transport movements per annum”.

As the report notes, the runway is regarded as a “nationally significant infrastructure project” under the Planning Act 2008, so further work to examine the final location of the scheme is required, as well as additional studies on air quality, noise, carbon emissions and “mitigating impacts on affected local communities”.

In June 2019 the airport’s owners, Heathrow Ltd, unveiled a long-term master plan for the airport involving the new runway, other infrastructure such as terminals and proposals for diverting rivers and road access, including rerouting the M25 through a tunnel under the new runway.

The ANPS document states: “For a scheme to be compliant with the ANPS, the Secretary of State would expect to see these elements comprised in its design, and their implementation and delivery secured.”

This led to further public consultations to enable local communities to review the proposals and offer feedback. The next one is scheduled to start in in April after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it would limit early spending on the third runway project.

Heathrow Ltd said: “Capping spending has prolonged the construction period of a new third runway and means Heathrow will need to undertake refreshed modelling of key aspects of the plan – including public transport to and from the airport – to evidence that ANPS targets can be met.”

Speaking in Parliament in February 2020, the then Transport Minister Paul Maynard said: “Expansion is a private sector project, therefore the cost of the scheme is a matter for Heathrow, who are regulated by the CAA. It is for Heathrow to demonstrate that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic.”

The consultation will run from April to June 2020. Heathrow’s owners will write to local authorities with more information and the company says responses will be fed into the final application for a Development Consent Order (DCO) required for the project. The Planning Inspectorate’s decision on the DCO will then inform the Secretary of State for Transport’s final call.

A Heathrow Ltd statement said: “Heathrow’s submission to the Planning Inspectorate will detail how the airport will expand and connect all of Britain to global growth, while meeting the requirements of the ANPS. It will also restate Heathrow’s commitment to ensuring an expanded Heathrow meets strict environmental targets, delivers tens of thousands of new high-skilled jobs and honours our commitments to local communities.”

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Terminal 5 has been open since 2008.


Reasons for Expansion…

Coping with increased demand for air travel and strategic economic benefits are key to the case for a new runway.

The ANPS says London’s five main airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stansted and Luton) “will all be full by the mid-2030s if we do not take action now” and that four of the five could even be “full by the mid-2020s”.

The ANPS says demand at these airports “is expected to outstrip capacity by at least 34%” by 2050, even using a low demand forecast. It notes: “There is relatively little scope to redistribute demand away from the region to less heavily utilised capacity elsewhere in the country.”

It adds that other European hubs such as Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Amsterdam “have spare capacity and are able to attract new flights to growth markets in China and South America”, and noted the competition from the big Gulf hubs.

The ANPS warns: “The consequences of not increasing airport capacity in the southeast of England – the ‘do nothing’ or ‘do minimum’ scenarios – are detrimental to the UK economy and the UK’s hub status.

“Capacity constraints lead to trade-offs in destinations, and while there is scope to respond to changing demand patterns, this necessarily comes at the expense of other connections. Domestic connectivity into the largest London airports will also decline… The Government believes that not increasing capacity will impose costs on passengers and on the wider economy.”

The ANPS says aviation contributes around £20 billion to the economy every year and directly supports approximately 230,000 jobs, while also “enabling activity in other important sectors like business services, financial services and the creative industries”.

The CBI’s Infrastructure and Energy Director Tom Thackray said last year: “We can’t wait any longer for the growth in trade we need to see if the UK is to remain a globally competitive economy.

“With the new global links and routes it will bring and the opportunity to unlock jobs right across the UK, a third runway at Heathrow operational by the 2030s will set the UK on course for a bright trading future.”

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A new runway would add at least 260,000 air transport movements per year.


…and Arguments Against

Opposition to ‘runway three’ is steadfast, from vocal pressure groups, which work with and through the main No 3rd Runway Coalition.

There are dissenting voices in the House of Commons, too, despite Parliament overwhelmingly voting for development. Several local MPs in constituencies near Heathrow have concerns over health impacts and question how more airport capacity is compatible with legally binding climate change targets the government has signed up to.

For example, during a February 5, 2020 debate on transport, Munira Wilson, the Lib Dem MP for Twickenham, said: “My constituents and many other people across southwest London already have their lives blighted by noise and air pollution, and over half a million people in the area surrounding Heathrow suffer noise levels above World Health Organisation standards. Heathrow expansion is bad for [the] climate, bad for our health and wellbeing.”

Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for Putney, said: “A third runway will… be a disaster for my constituents in Putney and southwest London.” She claimed the impact of 260,000 extra flights a year would be “acutely felt” and increased noise “will put an unbearable strain on the sleeping patterns and the health and wellbeing of my constituents”.

Anderson added: “That is not to mention the inevitable increase in air pollution that a third runway and expansion will bring. Putney already suffers from some of the worst air toxicity levels in London. This is the last thing we need.”

Anderson claimed it would prevent the UK from being able to reach its zero-carbon emissions reduction target by mid-century. She added: “I request that the minister reviews the national policy statement and cancels the expansion plans.”

Heathrow Ltd’s Executive Director for Expansion, Emma Gilthorpe, said: “We are keen to ensure our plans continue to be supported and shaped by local people as we prepare to deliver the economic boost Britain needs.”


Looming Decision

Heathrow Ltd is obviously eager for the go-ahead later this year. Gilthorpe said: “This country is ready for a decade of infrastructure delivery underpinned by expansion at Heathrow.” Heathrow Ltd says the runway could open in 2028 or 2029 should the government sign off its development.

But will the runway receive approval? There is the economic and business potential in the plans and the Conservative government could be emboldened thanks to the substantial parliamentary majority it won at the December 2019 General Election.

Just as significantly, the political winds are moving in favour of investing in national infrastructure projects, as shown by the recent approval of another equally controversial initiative, the HS2 high-speed railway from London to northern England. A third Heathrow runway would give the government another flagship project to bolster its narrative of economic “levelling up”.

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Last year a record more than 80 million passengers used Heathrow.


‘I See No Bulldozers’

When looking from another perspective, however, the decision does not appear quite so probable. 

More than a decade ago, while he was London Mayor, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson backed the idea of the Thames Estuary hub airport instead of enlarging Heathrow. Later, under the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition Government of 2010-2015, he quipped he would “lie down in front of those bulldozers” to stop construction work at Heathrow.

Johnson made what may be further telling comments in the House of Commons recently. On February 11, 2020 when speaking about the HS2 interchange, he said: “Passengers arriving at Birmingham Airport will be able to get to central London by train in 38 minutes, which compares favourably with the time it takes to get from Heathrow by taxi, a point I just draw to the attention of the House.”

When asked by Munira Wilson whether he would keep his promise about the bulldozers and scrap the third runway proposal, the PM said: “I see no bulldozers at present, nor any immediate prospect of them arriving.”

A throwaway comment, perhaps, but with the recent critical remarks by several MPs from London constituencies during the transport debates, The Guardian observed: “The current political buzz [is] that the mood is turning against Heathrow.”

A ‘no’ decision to more infrastructure in the southeast could conceivably also play well in UK regions where there are complaints of central government underfunding – areas where the Conservatives gained ground at the 2019 election.

When asked directly about the third runway policy during Prime Minister’s Questions on February 12, 2020, Johnson again said he personally does not support the runway, but would “wait to see the outcome of the various legal processes that are currently underway to see if the promoters of the third runway can satisfy their legal obligations under air quality and noise pollution”.

As the Guardian succinctly put it: “It suddenly looks very easy for a PM with a large majority to kill the third runway.”


Reports and Reversals: Milestones in the UK Airport Story

1946 Heathrow opens its first full-length runway.
1953 A Conservative Government White Paper proposes Gatwick as the second London airport.
1958 Gatwick opens.
1966 Commercial operations begin at Stansted.
1968 The Labour Government sets up the Roskill Commission to look at the need for a third London airport (subsequently, the Roskill Commission recommends Cublington, Oxfordshire).
1971 The Conservative Government selects Maplin Sands, Foulness, as the site of a new hub airport.
1974 The Maplin Sands proposal is abandoned by the newly elected Labour Government.
1978 The Labour Government's Aviation White Paper identifies Heathrow capacity as "restricted."
1986 Heathrow opens Terminal 4.
1990 The Conservative Government commissions another study on airport capacity in the southeast, which backs the expansion of Heathrow with a third runway.
1991 New terminal at Stansted opens.
2001 Manchester's second runway becomes operational; it is the first new runway at a UK airport for more than 20 years.
2003 The Labour Government's Future of Air Transport White Paper supports a third runway at Heathrow and a second runway at Stansted.
2008 Heathrow's Terminal 5 opens and Boris Johnson, then London Mayor, raises the option of siting an airport in the Thames estuary.
2009 The Labour Government backs a third runway at Heathrow.
2010 The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government reverses Labour's decision and also rules out new runways at Gatwick or Stansted.
2012 The Coalition Government establishes the Airports Commission, which in an interim report rules out a Thames estuary airport.
2015 The Airports Commission recommends a new runway at Heathrow.
2016 The Conservative Government supports the proposal for building a third runway.
2018 The House of Commons votes in favour of the runway plans.
2019 Heathrow's owners, Heathrow Ltd, unveil a long-term master plan for the airport. UK Civil Aviation Authority asks Heathrow Ltd to review spending.
2020 Final planning submission expected to be submitted by Heathrow Ltd ahead of a decision.


Further Reading