A new facility to replace Heathrow is a highly unlikely scenario, so the focus is likely to be back on the current airport's ability to retain its position as the U.K.'s main hub into the future.
Politicians regularly highlight the failures of Heathrow and its ability to stay open in the face of snow or fog, but they are considerably more reticent about helping to fix it. The building of new runway capacity in the southeast of England is seen as a political “hot potato” and ministers have been reluctant to make a decision which could bring extra noise to hundreds of thousands of city dwellers. And if a third Heathrow runway is unpopular, politicians are going to be even more reluctant to approve the building of a new airport, even if its creation could deliver a long-lasting economic legacy to the region.
Since the coalition government came to power in 2010 and withdrew support for another runway at Heathrow—reversing a 2009 decision made by the previous Labour administration—no fewer than seven new airport options have been suggested. Six of them would lie east of the city, using reclaimed land in the Thames Estuary. One of those, suggested by London Mayor Boris Johnson, was enthusiastically dubbed “Boris Island.”
But many believe an airport in the Thames Estuary is the wrong location for a London airport, since it would be difficult to reach for many people. Indeed, a key part of Heathrow's success has been its location to the west of London, and its proximity to the M4 corridor, where some of the world's largest multinational companies are headquartered.
The Heathrow 2025 masterplan also highlights a range of options for change at Heathrow, including two configurations for a third runway to the north of the airport. One features a short runway, to be primarily used for short-haul and domestic flights, combined with a new terminal in between the new runway and the current northern runway. The other suggests a third longer runway and another set of satellite terminals in the northeast corner of the airport.
Three options for four runways on the Heathrow site are also suggested. One proposes building a new fourth runway to the south of the current southern runway, construction of which would require demolition of the airport's current cargo facilities. Another alternative would see the runway moved toward the east, necessitating the demolition of both the freight areas and Terminal 4. And the third option, which has made it into the national press, would essentially rebuild Heathrow with four runways on land just west of the current airport, a move that could also reduce the number of people effected by noise, at least in London.
Heathrow air traffic has been affected by the economic downturn, dwindling since its peak in 2008, but it is forecast to rebound by 2018-19, and figures from the U.K. Transport Department indicate that all of the airports serving London will be full by 2030—and perhaps by 2025, if no new runways are built.
The Airports Commission, launched last November, is due this year to report assessments and recommendations to improve airport capacity in the next five years, but it will not announce longer-term recommendations, for the next 25-30 years, until the summer of 2015, after the next election.
Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to see proposed alternatives for a third runway at Heathrow, or go to AviationWeek.com/heathrow