The UK Government’s Airports Commission reported last Tuesday that the best way to add new capacity in the southeastern part of the country, around London, would involve adding a runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick, although it kept open the possibility of an all-new airport in the Thames Estuary. “All scenarios lead to the need for at least one net new runway,” commission chairman Sir Howard Davies declared.
Davies said that the work would now continue by looking at three options, selected from around 40 possibilities: Gatwick’s proposal for a new runway to the south of the existing Gatwick runway; Heathrow’s proposal to extend its existing northerly runway to at least 6,000 meters (almost 20,000 feet), enabling the extended runway to operate as two independent runways (one for takeoffs and one for landings); and Heathrow’s other proposal, for one new 3,500-meter (11,500-foot) runway to the northwest. The latter Heathrow option differs from the previous so-called “Third Runway” plan, which proposed a smaller runway just north of the existing airport. In 2010 the incoming coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron rejected that option.
Davies said that the choice between Heathrow and Gatwick is not clear-cut because of uncertainty over where growth will predominantly originate–namely, low-cost and regional traffic, which has seen Gatwick growing fast in recent years, or long-haul hub traffic that dominates at Heathrow. A further complication centers on the fact that while Gatwick owner Global Infrastructure Partners says it will not proceed with a second runway if Heathrow builds another, Heathrow says it would develop further runways even if Gatwick chooses to proceed. “Heathrow is the UK’s only hub airport and competes with Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam for transfer passengers to support long-haul routes. As the country’s most important point-to-point airport, Gatwick serves a different market,” said Heathrow Airport Ltd., in a written statement. “There is a clear business case for a third runway at Heathrow regardless of whether Gatwick is also permitted to expand. We do not agree with Gatwick’s stance that there can be only one new runway in the Southeast and we would welcome a solution in which both airports are allowed to grow to deliver choice for passengers and airlines.”
While not shortlisted, the “imaginative” Thames Estuary option will undergo “further study…in the first half of 2014.” The cost of that approach would total “up to £112 billion [$160 billion],” however, “around five times as much as the three shortlisted options.” Stansted Airport, meanwhile, “may come back into contention for a new runway in the 2040s,” said Davies, but for now most consider it too far from London.
Davies reflected that although the recent recession has temporarily rendered the situation less critical, existing airports have “little capacity to deal with unexpected events.” His report recommended the UK government take “immediate action” to optimize existing capacity, including airspace changes supporting performance-based navigation, time-based separation and collaborative decision making.
Putting the issue in context for “UK plc,” Davies recognized the impact on London of the growth of Gulf carriers and the success of Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle in attracting hub transfer traffic.
The next phase of the Airports Commission’s work will see it undertake a “detailed appraisal” of the three options identified before a public consultation next autumn.