The future of Heathrow

An open debate

If it was initially feared scenes of travel chaos at an over-crowded Heathrow airport could hit the headlines during this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games in London, it is the thorny subject of future airport capacity that has dominated more.

Expansion at Heathrow has been off the agenda since the UK Coalition government scrapped plans for a third runway took office in the spring of 2010. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats pledged their opposition to a third runway for Heathrow at the last election, and Labour later changed its position to oppose a third runway.

But a subtle shift in the political climate has seen airport capacity for London and the southeast resurface as part of the debate on helping to revive the UK’s mired economy.

In recent months business groups and aviation lobbyists have won over a growing number of Conservative backbenchers, who now believe the UK economy is being damaged by constrained airport capacity. UK prime minister David Cameron’s recent cabinet reshuffle also saw transport minister Justine Greening replaced after less than a year in the job. Greeining, who represents the southwest London constituency of Putney, Roehampton and Southfields – which lies directly beneath Heathrow’s flightpath, was opposed to construction of a third runway at the west London airport.

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The UK position, or lack of it, on future airport capacity has been a source of widespread complaint from UK business leaders and airline operators around the world. They greeted the news in July that the government’s consultation into expanding airport capacity would be pushed back to later this year with consternation, fearing a lack of policy was damaging the economic recovery and the UK’s future competitiveness.

A UK CAA report earlier this year warned flight prices from the UK will increase, route choices will fall and the economy will suffer unless the country's government develops a long-term aviation policy that includes sustainable airport capacity growth.

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And last month the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Aviation released a statement recommending that all efforts should be made "to ensure the UK retains and grows hub [airport] capacity" - specifically at London's only hub airport, Heathrow. In the longer term the government should consider a new purpose-built hub airport, the group adds, in a veiled reference to the proposed Thames Estuary airport.

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Peter Morris, chief economist at Flightglobal’s Ascend consultancy, says: “Without doubt something has to be done as constantly rearranging the furniture is not going to make your house significantly bigger.”

He highlights the need to understand what the objective of the new airport is and that notes a big enough vision would look to consolidate London’s multiple airports and use land released for all kinds of ventures. “At the moment, however, there does not seem to be enough political confidence even to define an objective,” he says.

But even if the momentum in the UK airport capacity argument appears to be swinging towards the economic benefits, the next question is how to expand. And this remains as complex as ever. There are a host of options ranging from operational changes at Heathrow, to expanding existing facilities through or a building a clean-slate new airport.