The Heathrow third runway project might happen after all. The latest report from the UK Airports Commission is out today and suggests that a so-called “Northwest Runway” be constructed at Heathrow, expanding capacity at London’s main long-haul hub. The proposed runway will be offset to the west of the two current runways which is expected to mitigate noise and congestion issues, among other benefits. Ultimately the Commission expects that the new runway would result in as many as 40 new destinations, 10-12 of which would be long-haul services and significant economic growth for the region.
The new runway would have strict curfew hours imposed and other mitigation factors implemented to help keep the local residents happy while still allowing for growth. It also suggests that Parliament commit to not adding a fourth runway at Heathrow, “as there is no environmental or operational case for a fourth runway.” It will also require effectively shuttering the town of Harmondsworth as that’s where the construction would occur.
The Commission’s recommendation to expand Heathrow offers up two justifications which, at first glance, seem to be at odds with each other. On the one hand expansion of the largest cargo and passenger facility “provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy.” The proposal also speaks to “an opportunity to change the airport’s relationship with its local communities” which sounds great but glosses over the likely impact on the two communities located just to the north of the current airport, one of which will no longer exist once the runway is built. Then again, the Commission suggests that they should be bought out at full market value plus 25% plus reasonable costs, so there is some financial benefit there. And the focus on noise mitigation, a commitment to not increase the total noise produced from today’s levels (thanks, in large part, to newer and quieter aircraft) and local representation in the process should help a bit.
The Commission focuses heavily on long-haul traffic throughout the report, noting that LCCs are making some in-roads into that space and that Gatwick offers up some options for those unable to acquire slots at Heathrow, but Heathrow is still the center of that universe for London. Gatwick’s long-haul role, as the Commission describes it, is to “replicate routes from Heathrow rather than increase the overall network” and that’s not good for global growth.
Special attention is paid to emerging markets throughout the report. And that makes a lot of sense given the significant growth expected in those areas. The challenging number, however, is where the Commission predicts a growth of 10-12 long-haul destinations as a result of this expansion. While that would bring Heathrow back up to the top of the “legacy” hub operators in terms of reach it will still lag significantly behind Dubai, even before one assumes that Dubai will continue to grow as well.
The Commission also notes the significant decrease in domestic service at Heathrow (Sorry, BMI) and implies that the new runway can help that recover with the additional slots which will become available. The numbers presented regarding the shift of non-London traffic to connect over Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dubai are dramatic. That said, the idea of connecting short-haul traffic to long-haul rather than only managing long-haul may simply represent a shift in the way the mid-sized markets operate in the current global aviation landscape.
Overall the Commission’s recommendation furthers (or attempts to resurrect, depending on your point of view) Heathrow’s role as THE airport for London and the United Kingdom. There are compelling financial and passenger-related arguments which support the approach. The big question is whether the government will actually move forward on it or not. And the initial reaction from London Mayor Boris Johnson is decidedly negative.
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