Heathrow Airport seems to be regularly in the news and today is no exception as the Independent Transport Commission, a think tank focusing on the aviation industry, reports its views on the airport.
The question many are asking is why there is such interest in Heathrow at the moment and, whilst the answer to that is clear, the underlying problem is one that is proving taxing for British aviation experts, the airport itself and the British government.
So, why is Heathrow in the news?
The airport has already reached capacity and solutions to its overcrowding are simply sticking plasters on the problem. The UK Transport Commission is due to report to the government in 2015 – after the next general election, over what it thinks the ultimate solution should be but with that stumbling block in the way, many of the proposed solutions cannot be acted upon.
What’s the hurry?
It’s believed that airlines are already looking to abandon Heathrow as their European hub and instead use airports such as Charles de Gaulle
, Frankfurt Airport
and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport
which all have the capacity for them to continue air traffic growth. Heathrow directly and indirectly supports the jobs of over 114,000 people and its position as Europe’s no. 1 transport hub means that many businesses gain from the wide route coverage the airport offers. This could all be lost if Heathrow is superseded by one of the continental airports who are aggressively marketing their suitability as the main European hub.
What are the alternatives?
There are three alternatives on the table. The first is to add a third runway to Heathrow, increasing its flight capacity by 40%. This is a good short term fix as it can be done relatively quickly although it will be a tight squeeze fitting another runway onto the site. By the time it’s completed, Heathrow will have already needed half of that extra capacity leaving only 20% for future growth and that’s expected to be swallowed up within a further five years.
The second alternative is to link Gatwick Airport
and Heathrow Airport
by a superfast train link, housed in a tunnel. The travelling time could be as little as 20 – 30 minutes; around the same as the slowest time between Heathrow’s existing terminals. This would create what is being called a ‘virtual hub’ but the cost of the rail link together with the expected lifespan of the extra capacity means it’s likely to be uneconomical. Stansted Airport
has also been touted as a possible hub for London, despite its location.
The third option and one that is favoured by many, is to build a completely new airport on an artificial island in the Thames Estuary. This would allow for almost unlimited expansion in the future and proposals for its construction indicate that expansion of the original structure at a future date could be quick and inexpensive. As always, there are environmental concerns but it’s by far the best option in terms of future-proofing. The difficulty surrounding it is the timescale. With no final decision likely until after 2015 and construction likely to take until 2020 to complete at the earliest, the idea of the UK as an international hub might well be just a memory by then.
The existing Heathrow Airport would almost certainly close to give the new airport a chance of success and force airport. That is a favoured option of London’s mayor who would like the airport land to be used for building a 200,000+ housing estate for west London, reducing the insatiable demand for housing in the capital.
Other radical ideas include an underground runway at the airport or building a multi deck runway over the existing runways to add capacity although safety campaigners have questioned how wise this option may be.
What’s likely to happen?
On one hand, increased landing charges at Heathrow coupled with the heavy burden of air passenger duty and the overcrowding at Heathrow will potentially drive airlines into the arms of alternative airports. In practice, it’s likely that government ministers and airport tsars will work hard to keep airlines on board. It’s likely to be a protracted battle given the variables but the end result, whilst close, should see a new airport built offshore.