Airport expansion: report opts for new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow

Heathrow runway

Boris Island not included in Airports Commission short-list - but it hasn't been ruled out either

LAST UPDATED AT 08:52 ON Tue 17 Dec 2013

NEW runways at Heathrow and Gatwick are among the three options short-listed by the Airports Commission in a report released today.

The London Mayor's proposal for a new airport in the Thames estuary has not been ruled out, but the commission said it would need to do further analysis before deciding if it is a viable option.

Businessman Sir Howard Davies, who is leading the commission, was set the task last year of independently investigating the options for expanding the UK's aviation capacity. Today he published his interim report, which will be followed by the final report before summer 2015. The options so far include:

  • Adding a third runway at Heathrow
  • Lengthening one of the existing runways at Heathrow
  • Adding a new runway at Gatwick

Heathrow's owners submitted evidence to the commission arguing that a new runway could be in place by 2029, allowing 260,000 more flights.

Boris Johnson says a new Heathrow runway would be "catastrophe", but supporters say it will be quicker and cheaper than other options, and will help to maintain the UK as an international aviation hub.

Heathrow is one of the world's busiest hub airports, handling 70 million passengers in 2012, says the BBC, but it operates at 98 per cent of its capacity.

Davies says the capacity challenge "is not yet critical but it will become so if no action is taken soon". The commission's analysis supports the provision of one additional runway in the south east by 2030, he said. Its analysis also indicates that there is likely to be a demand case for a second additional runway to be operational by 2050.

On Sunday, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin said that the government would stick to its pledge not to back another runway at Heathrow during this parliament. But the government has said it had not ruled out any options when it came to airport expansion in the south east of England.

Mayor's 'fury' as Heathrow expansion favoured over Boris Island

12 December

A "FURIOUS" Boris Johnson has questioned the independence of the Airports Commission amid claims it is backing the expansion of Heathrow over the London mayor's proposal for a new airport in the Thames estuary.

Johnson vented his frustration following a meeting between the chancellor, George Osborne, and the head of the commission, Sir Howard Davies. The Times says that Davies is believed to have told Osborne that his "three favoured options" for relieving air traffic congestion involved new runways at Heathrow.

Johnson is vehmently opposed to the idea of expanding Heathrow due to concerns over increased aircraft noise and pollution. He has called for the construction of an entirely new airport - dubbed 'Boris Island' - in the Thames estuary.

The mayor said he was stunned by Sir Howard's stance. “I have participated in this process in good faith, despite increasing concerns about its methodology. If only three options are left on the table, all beginning with the word Heathrow, that would be scandalous,” he said.

“I am surprised, if it is true, that Sir Howard has seen the need to brief the Chancellor at this very delicate stage, but it is, of course, his job, not mine, to show constantly that the commission is truly independent.”

The Airports Commission plans to make recommendations on short-term options for easing capacity constraints this month. A full report on long-term solutions is due in two years. 

The situation is becoming critical because Heathrow is at full stretch. Its two runways are used by almost 500,000 aircraft a year, which is around 98 per cent of their capacity. BAA, the airport's operator, is keen to offer more flights, particularly to emerging markets such as China. But unless something can be done to extend Heathrow's capacity, more and more business will be lost to rival hubs in cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. That's bad for tourism, bad for business and bad for the UK economy as a whole.

So, what's to be done? There are several options and each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The proponents of each are passionate; opponents equally so.

OPTION 1: Build a third runway at Heathrow

Increasing Heathrow's capacity by building a third runway seems an obvious solution. The idea was championed by successive Labour governments and formalised by a 2003 white paper calling for the construction of a new landing strip by 2015. The Tories have been opposed to a third runway - David Cameron criticised Gordon Brown in 2008 for "pig-headedly" pressing ahead with the plan -and the newly-elected Coalition made a promise in 2010 that there would be no expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. However, there are signs that the Conservatives' resistance is weakening. Late last year, Cameron said he wouldn't renege on his manifesto pledge to oppose a third runway "in this parliament", but didn't rule out supporting the idea in the future.

What are arguments in favour of a third runway?

Supporters of a third runway say it would be cheaper and quicker to build than a brand new airport. In a submission to the Airports Commission in July, Heathrow argued that the "£14bn-£18bn" cost of an extra runway was "cheaper than any rival hub option".

A third runway would provide economic benefits to the UK worth £100bn, the submission says. That is more than the benefits from either Crossrail or HS2. Each of the three third runway options outlined in the report "could be turned into a four runway solution should the demand increase in future," the submission says. "This is a more cost effective solution than building a new four-runway airport from scratch when we may never need one."

What are the main arguments against the extra runway?

A sharp rise in air and noise pollution is the main reason a third runway is strongly opposed by many people, particularly those living under flight paths. Heathrow currently exposes 766,000 people to "severe noise" and that number will rise to almost a million if it expands. Statistics released by the Department of Transport in 2009 showed Heathrow was generating 50 per cent of UK aviation emissions and six per cent of the UK's total emissions. Opponents of the third runway argue that the expanded airport could be responsible for as much as 50 per cent of the UK's emissions by 2050. That raises a question, says BBC. In a world concerned about the environment, why should we assume that air traffic should simply continue to grow? Some opponents of the third runway believe the UK should stick with the flight capacity it has and "allow market forces to price out inessential flyers".

Third runway opponents have also argued that the economic case for expanding Heathrow has been "overstated". Former British Airways boss Bob Ayling told BBC that many of the passengers using the new runway would be in transit and spend "little or nothing" in London. Meanwhile, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government said the runway would come to be seen as a white elephant because demand for flying will "fall away" as pressure to reduce carbon emissions increases.

OPTION 2: A brand new airport

A completely new airport makes sense, say proponents, because Heathrow - which began life as a private airfield - is badly located. Its flight paths send aircraft over heavily-populated parts of London which has implications for both safety and air and noise pollution.

The highest profile advocate of a new airport is London mayor Boris Johnson. He initially proposed the construction of a four-runway airport in the outer Thames Estuary, a project dubbed 'Boris Island' by the press. The location meant only 50 people would be affected by noise, but there were concerns about the impact on "biodiversity and natural habitats", says the London Evening Standard. Another worry was the fact that getting to the airport from central London would take 40 minutes even if a high-speed rail line was built.

Johnson still wants a new airport built, but his favoured site is now the Isle of Grain in the inner Thames Estuary. Built on reclaimed land, the airport would allow take offs and landings to take place over water. As a result, the number of people affected by noise would be low - "five per cent" of the people affected by an expanded Heathrow according to one estimate. A new high-speed rail line would transport passengers from central London to the airport in less than 30 minutes.

What are the arguments for a Thames Estuary airport?

Architects Foster + Partners, one of several firms that have proposed a design for the new airport, told The Engineer that the chance to "relieve 5 million Londoners of the noise, pollution and dangers of flight paths over the capital" was a key reason to build the new airport. It says it would be more "cost-effective" to build the facility in a "non-urban site" and it could operate 24-hours-a-day because a relatively low number of people would be affected by noise. The new airport could be built in the "same timeframe" as Heathrow's third runway, but it would offer far greater capacity - 110 million passengers per year within 16 years. By contrast, Heathrow's third runway would be at full capacity within a decade of the first plane taking off, the firm argues.

OPTION 3: Expand Gatwick or Stansted

The expansion of Stansted is another option favoured by Johnson. The mayor says the airport is in a good location to serve "key economic centres" such as the City and Canary Wharf. Less than 40,000 people would be affected by noise and pollution if Stansted was expanded into a hub and the bigger airport would create about 134,000 jobs. "It would be quicker to get to Stansted from Canary Wharf, the Lea Valley and other UK cities than to get to Heathrow," says the Standard. 

What's the argument against expanding Stansted?

The fact that Stansted is currently operating at "half its permitted capacity" suggests airlines don't want to use it, Carol Barbone, campaign director of Stop Stansted Expansion told the Daily Mail. "If the market was interested in using Stansted we would be seeing increasing passenger numbers rather than a month-on-month decline for the past five years," she said. BAA agrees, saying the construction of a second runway at Stansted would simply "increase the amount of spare capacity there".

What's the case for expanding Gatwick?

Writing in the London Evening Standard, Simon Jenkins says building a new runway at Gatwick is the best solution to the UK's most vexed infrastructure debate. The expansion would affect a relatively small number of residents and Gatwick's owners have already set out plans to start building a second runway in 2019. They are unable to begin work before then because of a "promise made to local councils in 1979". But Jenkins says the date should be brought forward because it would be a "less devastating betrayal than breaking yet another promise to the more numerous residents of west London".

Writes Jenkins: "The Isle of Grain will not happen. Heathrow cannot expand. Luton and other airports may take some of the pressure. But Gatwick it must be. If airlines do not like it, they can lump it."

What are the arguments against expanding Gatwick?

The Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC) cites the impact on the environment and quality of life as key reasons why Gatwick shouldn't be expanded. But it adds another reason: the topography of the area means a new runway "won't work". A range of hills to the west and a main railway line to the east means the layout of a new runway would be "cramped and convoluted", GACC says. · 

Disqus - noscript

I think to build a third runway is better option instead of new airport because new one will cost much more as old one.

Your article is a joke! Why are none of the arguments against a new airport included? There are plenty of them.

Let me explain in English the old airport is a hazard and if a plane crashed would kill many people. Noise and air pollution will raise a legal battle that could take years to resolve.

Heathrow is outdated and cannot compete with a Modern airports that will post flights 24 hours a day and provide many more flight operators.

Land in London has become very valuable, with the current land mass at Heathrow it could yield a massive investment well into the future replacing the airport.

...for God's sake - let us get on and do SOMETHING! Cameron's "promises" and "pledges" are, as usual, empty and mendacious.

I would trust Boris Johnson far more on this matter. The least worst option would be, perhaps, an extra runway at Gatwick, notwithstanding the topography, followed by the inner Thames estuary option.

Heathrow should not even be in the frame - it was never envisaged to run at its current capacity and it is only a matter of time (no if's or but's about this one) before a fully laden passenger aircraft crashes into the middle of London - perhaps on Westminster itself (mixed feelings about that scenario).

Suzy444 - I agree. Do we really need all this vast expenditure on HS2 and now this!? Does the argument always have to concentrate on trade, business and money. Oh I suppose I have now generated a "but you do realise do you not that trade is our lifeblood and etc. rubbish" signed A Banker.

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