The DfT published their strategy with the vision for expanding Heathrow airport back in 2006 and announced the expansion three years later. The expansion project would have consisted of a new 2,200 metre runway, a sixth terminal and a high-speed railway hub. Local residents and councils opposed the plan on the grounds that it would destroy local communities. The expansion would require the demolition of the village of Sipson and over 700 homes. In addition to this, the local residents who would not have to forego their homes would then have to endure more noise pollution and poorer air quality due to the increased air traffic.
Upon being elected in 2010, the Conservative-led coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow Airport amid to protests from environmental groups and local residents. Now, as Heathrow is running at 99% capacity and many analysts envision an imminent airport capacity crunch for London and the South East, the debate has risen from the ashes. The government have reversed their position on the issue and commissioned a report to assess airport capacity in the South East. A decision will be made after the 2015 general election.
With aircraft currently landing and departing every 45 seconds at Heathrow, landing slots are costly relative to comparable airports in Europe. This also leaves very little slack in the event of extreme weather or a mishap on the runway. This lack of spare capacity has put significant pressure on Heathrow being a global hub. Many airlines prefer to use airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Madrid due to lower costs and more landing slots. Between 1990 and the present, the number of destinations served by Heathrow has declined from 227 to just 194. Frankfurt Airport serves 307 destinations in 94 countries, Amsterdam Schiphol serves 281 and Paris Charles de Gaulle serves 292.
This has a profound impact on the economy. A number of empirical studies have shown that investment in transport infrastructure has a positive impact in GDP. This supports historical data which show that improvements in transport connectivity have been pivotal in supporting the rapid growth of economies. The data also reveal that transport improvements have been a critical driving force in past phases of globalisation.
Although transport infrastructure has a profound impact in rapidly developing countries, its effect in developed countries is more incremental. In spite of this, a lack of capacity has been shown to constrain growth. Frontier Economics, a consultancy, has predicted that Britain could miss out on £1.2 – £1.6 billion of trade a year if capacity continues to be constrained. Colin Matthews, the CEO of BAA, Heathrow’s parent company said, ‘if Britain is not to lose out to international competitors, we need an aviation policy that recognises the role of a hub airport in supporting growth – and we need it quickly.’ Better connections will be needed as emerging economies continue to grow and increase trade with the West. It is expected that by 2021, if Heathrow remains constrained, it will only account for 21% of the seats booked to the 8 fastest growing economies from the five European hubs compared to 35% if it were allowed to expand.
Boris Johnson, London’s Conservative Mayor, has proposed a new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow as a hub. This is not a new proposal, the first plans to construct an airport in the Thames Estuary date back to 1943, just a year before Heathrow was upgraded from a small airfield, to a larger airfield to cope with larger aeroplanes destined to the Far East. The airport in the Thames Estuary would be a purpose-built international airport of four runways, and due to its distance from most settlements, would be operational for a full 24 hours a day.
The idea of a brand new airport may seem rosy, but the Thames estuary is a habitat for many endangered species of birds. Building an airport is likely to upset their habitats and endanger them further. Furthermore, the airport will have to be built on an artificial island or on reclaimed land. This means that it will be at least a generation before the airport comes to fruition. The airport itself would cost £20 billion, but due to its location an additional £30 billion would have to be spent in order to provide the infrastructure necessary to support such an airport.
At Heathrow, this infrastructure already exists. It is well served by National Rail and the London Underground, and will also be served by Crossrail and HS2. Heathrow is also not as old and dated as many like to think. Terminal 5 is just five years old, a spiffy new Terminal 2 will open in the coming months and there are plans to modernise Terminals 1 and 3 in the near future. Expanding at Heathrow is the quicker, cheaper option, but the government are determined to explore all the alternatives.
Though expanding Heathrow makes economic sense, a third runway is not the answer. For Heathrow to keep up with other hub airports, four runways are needed. This could be achieved with less disruption than the third runway proposal. Tim Leuing, an economist, proposed that by expanding westwards, where the land is less densely populated, four runways could be added with relative ease. His proposal is an example of sheer brilliance. Instead of demolishing hundreds of homes to cram in another runway and terminal, extending westwards requires covering over a 2 km stretch of the M25 and filling in some of a large reservoir.
There are various other advantages to this expansion project.
• It can take place gradually, as demand grows or as time allows
• No need for businesses or workers to migrate to another airport
• More of the final approach will be over airport buildings than residential areas
• Facilitates construction of more terminal buildings without additional extension of airport boundary
The fact is simple; Britain needs a modern, fit-for-purpose hub airport. Leuing’s proposal for four runways at Heathrow is the most prudent. The government needs to come to a conclusion and make a decision quickly otherwise Britain will run the risk of being left behind once again.