Develop or die: that was the message from the owners of Heathrow as they unveiled radical plans for expansion. Within 12 years Europe's busiest airport could have three runways, increasing capacity by 50 per cent, and by 2040 it could expand to four.
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Heathrow's "pick-and-mix" submission to the Davies Commission, which is evaluating solutions to the aviation capacity crunch, surprised industry observers. Three potential locations just outside the existing perimeter are offered for a third runway, with another trio of options providing for a fourth.
"After half a century of vigorous debate but little action, it is clear the UK desperately needs a single hub airport," said Colin Matthews, Heathrow's chief executive. "Today we are showing how that vision can be achieved whilst keeping the impact on local residents to an absolute minimum."
The bosses of Heathrow Airport Holdings (formerly BAA) chose Tate Modern to reveal its works-in-progress. The quickest option is a short runway due north of the present site, which would cost around £14bn and be ready by 2025. A longer runway to the north-west could open in 2026 with a price tag of £17bn. The most expensive option, costing £18bn, is a new runway to the south-west, being built over a reservoir and the M25. It would not open until 2029.
Each option could be expanded to add a fourth runway, with the airport insisting fewer people than today would live within the noise footprint.
The plans were backed by the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, which speaks for the airline community. The chief executive, Dale Keller, said "This debate is not a battle between Heathrow and the rest of the UK's airports, but a battle between Heathrow and the other international hubs."
Nine out of 10 airlines in his organisation back expansion at Heathrow, and half of them say they do not regard an expanded Gatwick as a reasonable alternative - and would move to another international hub or destination if they cannot get slots at Heathrow.
Councillor Colin Ellar, deputy leader of Hounslow Council, said: "Our borough would be hit hard by the south-west runway proposal at Stanwell Moor. The north runway - the Sipson option - which unlike its predecessor is a full-length runway, would also have a profoundly negative impact."
London leads the world in aviation, with many more passengers than any other city: an average of one planeload of 150 passengers every 30 seconds. Slightly more than half the 370,000 daily throughput use Heathrow. Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris have more runways, but Heathrow handles far more traffic.
The deadline for submissions to the Airports Commission is Friday. Sir Howard Davies and his colleagues will publish its recommendations in 2015, after the next election.
On Monday this week, London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, came out in favour of a brand-new four-runway airport in the Thames Estuary - or possibly adding three more runways at Stansted in Essex. Gatwick has hired the architect, Sir Terry Farrell, to spearhead its plans for a second runway at the Sussex airport.
THE OPTIONS AND CALDER'S ODDS
Homes lost: 2,700
Cost (£bn): 14
Pros: the fastest and cheapest solution, but also the noisiest and most destructive.
Cons: the noisiest and most destructive option
Calder's odds: 3-1
Homes lost: 950
Cost (£bn): 17
Pros: Full-length runway and less impact on homes
Cons: Wipes out two listed historic properties
Calder's odds: 3-1
Homes lost: 850
Cost (£bn): 18
Pros: Minimum noise effect
Cons: Painfully slow
Calder's odds: 5-1
Gatwick plus one
Homes lost: 300?
Cost (£bn): 10?
Pros: Least controversial
Cons: Airlines unenthusiastic
Calder's odds: Evens
Stansted plus three
Homes lost: 1,000
Cost (£bn): 30?
Pros: Lowest impact of four-runway plans for existing airports
Cons: Present airport is half-empty
Calder's odds: 50-1
"Foster Island" (Isle of Grain)
Homes lost: 2,000
Cost (£bn): 50
Pros: Cheapest green-field option
Cons: Massive opposition from aviation community
Calder's odds: 500-1
Homes lost: 0
Cost (£bn): 80
Pros: Only 50 people affected by noise, according to the London Mayor
Cons: Vast taxpayer support needed
Calder's odds: 10,000-1
Homes lost: 0
Cost (£bn): 0
Pros: Voters in marginal south-west London constituencies won't be upset
Cons: exacerbates capacity crunch
Calder's odds: evens