August 19, 2013
Credit: Heathrow Airports Limited
London's airports urgently need extra capacity, but finding the best locations for new runways—and deciding if the city needs a single, main hub airport—are likely to be major subjects for debate in the coming years.
All three of London's major airports, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, are making a determined push for expansion in their submissions to the U.K. Airports Commission. The commission, set up by the coalition government in 2012, has begun examining proposals for expansion from airport operators, consultants, environmental groups and airlines and is due to report its findings on short-term improvements in airport capacity later this year.
But while it has a U.K.-wide mandate, the commission's focus is likely to be on the future of Heathrow.
In their submissions, Heathrow Airport Holdings, which runs the airport, says it has whittled down options from consultants and think tanks, eliminating ideas to move to new sites and instead focusing on making the best use of the land close to the airport.
Submissions from the operator unveiled on July 17 revealed three options for the creation of a three-runway Heathrow, with others potentially allowing for a fourth runway beyond 2040. The plans are radical and would likely have major impacts on the surrounding infrastructure and communities. But the operators argue that the costs of their proposals are a fraction of the expense of building a new airport in the Thames estuary, and could be completed in just over a decade, relieving pressure on the two-runway airport which is already close to capacity.
The most familiar of the options is a new runway between Heathrow and the M4 motorway. This option, while the quickest to deliver and the least expensive at roughly £14.3 billion ($22.2 billion), only allows for the construction of a short 2,500-meter (8,200-ft.) runway, limiting capacity growth to 123 million passengers and 702,000 movements a year. The airport argues growth would be better served with two new options —the creation of a 3,500-meter runway in the northwest or southwest corner of the airport. With costs estimated at £16.9 and £17.6 billion, respectively, these options are more “technically challenging,” but Heathrow's operator argues they would be preferable, accommodating 740,000 movements per year and up to 130 million passengers.
Heathrow's proposal points out that the northwest and southwest runway growth options “perform better on noise” than the third option because they are farther west than existing runways, so aircraft on approach to these new runways would be higher over London during the airport's “westerly” mode of operation.