Heathrow Third Runway Cleared for Arrival


Approximate location of the new 3rd runway proposed at Heathrow

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.

Approximate location of the new 3rd runway proposed at Heathrow
Heathrow Third Runway Approximate Location

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.

Number of emerging market destinations served by hub
Number of emerging market destinations served by hub

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.

Other UK traffic is avoiding Heathrow; the Commission wants to change that, though it may not really be necessary
Other UK traffic is avoiding Heathrow; the Commission wants to change that, though it may not really be necessary

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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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

3 Comments

  1. The reaction from almost all politicians, with the exception of those with constituencies near Gatwick, is militantly negative. What’s more Zac Goldsmith (the likely Conservative candidate for London mayor, and current MP) has repeated that he will resign and trigger a by-election should London be chosen. Given the Government’s extremely slender majority, they will move Heaven and earth to avoid that happening.

    The chances of a go-ahead in this decade are very slim – and the process will take at least 10 years after a go-ahead is given.

  2. Zac Goldsmith is hardly a rock solid supporter of the government so I don’t think they mind him triggering a by election, especially as that will happen again if he is elected mayor. The Heathrow question has been pushed into the long grass for too long and Cameron doesn’t want another term so he might actually do something this time. There is no realistic alternative and a runway must be built somewhere. It’s been over 60 years since the last one in Londom.

  3. Meanwhile the 85% of the UK who live in ‘the regions’ (outside the M25 London Orbital Motorway) will continue to do what we’ve done for years, and use AMS, FRA, CDG, MUC, BRU, EWR, PHL, DXB, DOH, IST etc. as our hubs for long and short haul.

    The group who gets disproportionate benefit from a third runway are BA, and everyone else tails far behind that.

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