The government’s choice of a third runway at Heathrow has been backed by parliament. Travel correspondent Simon Calder explains the plan, the potential and the problems.
What’s the background?
Fifteen years ago, the-then transport secretary, Alistair Darling, told me: “Doing nothing about airport capacity is not an option.” Yet were there a World Cup for the sport of kicking the can down the road, the UK would win it for keeps.
Even though no new full-length runway has been built in southeast England since the Second World War, London has grown to become world capital of aviation. But Heathrow and Gatwick are already operating at way beyond their design capacity.
“With very limited capability at London’s major airports,” says the government.
“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.”
MPs voted by 415 to 119 – a majority of 296, and a ratio of 3.5 to 1 - to approve the government’s chosen scheme, contained in the Airports National Policy Statement. It prescribes the construction of a new runway at Heathrow, northwest of the existing pair of runways.
The Davies Commission on airport expansion chose the third runway ahead of two other shortlisted options: an extended northern runway at Heathrow, known as the “Heathrow Hub” project, and a second runway at Gatwick.
The third runway will allow an increase from the current 480,000 takeoffs and landings each year to around 740,000 – an increase of 54 per cent.
In terms of passenger numbers, a third runway could increase capacity to 130 million, two-thirds more than the 78 million who passed through Heathrow last year.
The Department for Transport says the expansion will bring more jobs and greater economic growth along with more flights: “A new runway at Heathrow would provide benefits of up to £74bn to passengers and the wider economy and create tens of thousands of local jobs.
“It will better connect the UK to the rest of world with an extra 16 million long-haul seats available by 2040.”
The TUC concurs. The general secretary, Frances O’Grady says: “The case for Heathrow expansion was proven long ago. It will create thousands of high-quality jobs and apprenticeships. And it has the backing of airlines and many other businesses."
What will it cost?
Heathrow says its scheme will cost around £14bn, which is £2.5bn less than originally proposed. The savings could be made by abandoning plans to build a new Terminal 6, and instead expanding Terminals 2 and 5. But in the absence of a master plan, nobody quite knows.
Meanwhile the leading local businessman and property owner, Surinder Arora, has come up with alternative plans which, he claims, will “deliver significant cost savings and break the current monopoly, which overcharges airlines and passengers.”
What about the transport infrastructure?
The government says that local road improvements will be paid for by Heathrow as part of the £14bn project. But in order for some environmental targets to be met, many more travellers – and staff – will need to travel to and from Heathrow by public transport.
There is controversy over how improved access by rail will be funded, as well as the cost of tunnelling beneath the M25. The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, tweeted: “Approval of Heathrow effectively commits an extra £16 billion of transport spending to London & South-East."
The government points out that some enhancements, notably the new Crossrail line and an improved Tube service, are already under way and funded, and that a southern rail link to Heathrow is a private sector project.
But the shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said in the Commons debate that there is no certainty about the total surface infrastructure bill related to the third runway, nor how it will be apportioned. “Labour has concluded that, in fact, the Heathrow third runway is not deliverable,” he said.
Yet in a free vote, a majority of Labour MPs voted in favour of expansion and against the views of the party’s leadership.
How much disruption will the construction involve?
As the construction of the new terminal Terminal 2 right in the middle of Europe’s busiest airport showed, Heathrow can manage large-scale building very effectively while operations continue normally.
Bigger concerns are likely to involve disruption to the M25: the stretch of motorway between Heathrow Terminal 5 and the M4 junction, which is where the runway would be built, is one of the busiest in Europe. It is thought a 14-lane, 600m-long tunnel would be built first, before the existing M25 is diverted.
When would a third runway open?
In 2026 if all goes well with the project, says Heathrow.
In terms of new flights, what happens until then?
There is very little capacity at Heathrow. The airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, says: “With the airport now running at 98 per cent capacity, there is no room for growth and the UK faces losing valuable opportunities to other countries.”
Heathrow will continue to increase passenger numbers, largely through airlines deploying larger aircraft. Gatwick continues to defy the apparent capacity limits of a single runway, and announced on the day of the vote new flights to Florida. Stansted has plenty of space for expansion, and once Luton’s current development is completed it will also have room to grow. Meanwhile plucky Southend is also expanding rapidly.
Does all the new capacity open with a “big bang”?
No. It is likely that, once the runway opens, “blocks” of capacity will be added at a rate of five to 10 million at a time. If the runway opens at the start of the winter season in October 2026, and the airport is handling 85 million passengers annually at the time, it could increase to 95 million by the following October. That would represent a fairly cautious growth of 11 per cent.
Another 10 per cent could happen the following year, with the number gradually tapering off as capacity is reached.
How will the slots be allocated?
When significant new capacity is added at an airport, according to European Union rules half the new slots must go to existing holders, and half to new entrants.
The existing holders are offered slots in proportion to their current holdings. At present, British Airways has half the slots at Heathrow. It would therefore get 25 per cent of the new slots, gradually diluting its proportion of the total.
Of course, since the UK will not be in the European Union by the time the runway opens, it may be that another system could be used.
What new routes will we get?
Who knows? The government and Heathrow have made much of the ability to grow the route network to more cities in China. But after British Airways launched flights to Chengdu in western China, it soon abandoned the route as unprofitable.
Relative to the rest of the world, Africa and Latin America are under-served from Heathrow. But airlines will ultimately decide which routes will make them the most money.
What about domestic flights?
Compared with France, Germany, Spain and Italy, Heathrow has very few domestic services, with just eight UK routes. Amsterdam, Dublin and Paris each have far more connections from provincial British cities than does Heathrow.
Airports which used to have connections with Heathrow – including Newquay, Durham Tees Valley and Prestwick – want those links restored.
Business travellers are accustomed to the idea of having many domestic links from the main aviation hub. In comparable countries, important national and regional cities of the scale and status of Cardiff, Liverpool and Norwich would have connections with the nation’s main airport. Even though the distances of those cities are only 125, 163 and 111 miles respectively from Heathrow as the Airbus flies, in other nations they would be considered completely normal.
Which UK links are guaranteed?
None. While regional UK airports and politicians may have gained the impression that 15 per cent of slots at Heathrow would be “ringfenced” for domestic connections, the National Policy Statement concedes: “Air routes are in the first instance a commercial decision for airlines and are not in the gift of an airport operator.”
The Department for Transport says it is determined that new routes will be secured, and the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, has said he will use the “Public Service Obligation” (PSO) mechanism to ensure it; this allows some routes to be specified by national governments on social and economic grounds. Labour says this approach will not work.
The government says it will “hold Heathrow Airport to account” on the subject; though the “15 per cent” turns out to be ”up to 15 per cent”.
In 2016, the chief executive of IAG – British Airways’ parent company – said there was “zero chance” of BA operating flights to Liverpool and Newquay. Willie Walsh said: “We’re not interested in these artificial routes. We’ll go where there’s demand. The aspirations people have on domestic links are very difficult to understand.”
Will budget airlines get a look in?
Yes: easyJet has lobbied intensively for several years for expansion at Heathrow. The airline, which is the UK’s biggest budget carrier, has promised more routes and lower fares, saying: “Passengers would benefit from the increased competition to legacy carriers and would enjoy fares around 30 per cent lower on routes to existing UK and European destinations.
“The new entrants would also launch flights to UK and European airports not currently served by Heathrow providing important economic connections to the UK’s only hub airport.”
What will happen to existing air fares?
In principle, increased competition – in particular against British Airways, which currently has half the capacity at Heathrow – should mean lower fares. But there is no certainty about what might happen to passenger charges.
At present, the airlines say that Heathrow has the highest charges of any airport in the world. On a £43 British Airways flight from Heathrow to Amsterdam, about half the cost is the airport’s passenger charge (and a further 30 per cent is Air Passenger Duty).
The airlines, led by British Airways’ parent company, IAG, are demanding there is no increase in charges. Willie Walsh, chief executive of IAG, said: “Parliament has approved Heathrow’s expansion without any idea on how much it will cost. We have zero confidence in Heathrow’s management’s ability to deliver this project while keeping airport charges flat.
“It’s only a matter of time before we start hearing excuses for massive cost escalation on the exorbitant estimated cost of the project. These excuses will be followed by a change of leadership at Heathrow, who will then distance themselves from the promises and commitments that have been given.”
Mr Holland-Kaye says fees will be held “close to current charges”.
Will there be an end to “stacking”?
At present many of the 650-plus daily flight arrivals at Heathrow spend time in holding patterns over the Home Counties, to allow controllers at the world’s busiest two-runway airport to sequence touchdowns and maximise capacity.
When the third runway first opens, there should be an immediate reduction in the amount of stacking, as well as delays on the ground waiting to take off. That advantage is likely to erode as the amount of activity increases – though there may simulaneously be improvements to international air-navigation procedures which mitigate the problem.
Will queues for passport control be even worse?
The sporadic, short-term surges in waiting times at the UK Border are unrelated to expansion; it is presumed that appropriate staffing and technology will be deployed to avoid long queues becoming a chronic problem.
How much property would be destroyed?
Around 800 householders would lose their homes. What the transport secretary calls “a world-leading package of compensation” will see them being paid 125 per cent of the value of their homes.
In addition, a large amount of existing commercial real estate would be flattened.
Who is objecting to a third runway, and why?
Opposition is in four broad camps, with considerable overlap between them.
1 Local residents who will either seen their homes demolished or be living uncomfortably close to the third runway when it is built.
2 Proponents of alternative schemes for increased airport capacity.
3 Environmentalists concerned about the global effect of carbon emissions associated with expanded air travel.
4 People living in west and southwest London who will be affected by additional noise and pollution.
What are the noise and pollution issues?
Many more people would be affected by airport noise when a third runway opens. In addition, the extra passenger journeys will generate more road traffic.
The London Boroughs of Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham, backed up by the Mayor of London, are seeking a judicial review of the process of deciding on a third runway at Heathrow. “It cannot survive independent, lawful and rational scrutiny,” says councillor Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandsworth Council.
“Heathrow already makes life intolerable for people of all sides of the airport. The government should be reducing noise for the communities affected but instead it is making it worse.”
Councillor Gareth Roberts, leader of Richmond Council, says: “The government has still offered no evidence showing how air quality obligations can be achieved. We will fight this proposal through the courts and we will win because the alternative is to condemn thousands of people to premature deaths from dangerous levels of air pollution.”
They say they will refer the matter to the High Court as soon as possible. “We will, now that Parliament has failed us, do all that we can to bring this sorry saga to an end once and for all," says Councillor Roberts.
Can’t flights simply be moved to airports outside southeast England?
No. While Manchester is expanding fast, and is now in the top 20 of European airports, very limited success has been found with encouraging travellers to use Birmingham airport — even though it is barely an hour by train from London. While the government formerly mandated where airlines could fly, for example by insisting on new entrants going to Heathrow, those days have long gone.
Could the “losing” options for expansion get a second chance?
Possibly. Jock Lowe, who came up with the Heathrow Hub concept to extend Heathrow’s existing northern runway, has indicated that he will ask for a judicial review on the grounds that his scheme was not properly evaluated against the airport’s own scheme. He says his plan ”delivers the same benefits but is cheaper, simpler, quieter and quicker to build”.
He also says it can be built in phases, allowing regulators to halt expansion if environmental targets such as noise and air quality are threatened.
Meanwhile Gatwick has let it be known that it is standing ready to build a second runway at lower cost and with less damage than Heathrow’s third runway.
What is your view on the likelihood for each outcome?
Heathrow goes ahead as planned – 50 per cent
Heathrow Hub is adopted instead – 20 per cent
Heathrow expansion is cancelled and Gatwick gets the nod instead – 20 per cent
The “Boris Island” plan for a new Thames Estuary airport comes back into fashion 0.001 per cent
Nothing happens for another decade – 9.999 per cent
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