Airport expansion: where should a new runway be built?

The next UK government will have to make a decision concerning airport expansion in the south east of the country pretty soon after it comes into power. There are currently three options being considered by a commission which is due to publish its recommendations after the upcoming general election: two options are to expand Heathrow and the third option is to expand Gatwick. At Heathrow, the suggested new runway would be built either to the north east of the current north runway, or as an extension to the north runway. At Gatwick, a new runway would be built parallel to and to the south of the existing runway.

While predicting the outcome of the general election and guessing a future government’s decision is a fool’s errand, it would seem highly unlikely that an expansion of Heathrow will be approved, and as such by default Gatwick expansion is the likeliest outcome. Heathrow expansion is very difficult to sell politically. If the Conservatives were to form the next government, they are likely to see opposition from within the party, as a number of their members, including the likely next MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip Boris Johnson, a cabinet minister and my local MP Justine Greening (Putney, Roehampton, and Southfields), and another cabinet minister Philip Hammond (Runneymede and Weybridge), have been reported to be against Heathrow expansion. The only electoral outcome that could conceivably push through Heathrow expansion would be a Labour government with a large majority, even though Ed Miliband had threatened to resign from the cabinet in the last Labour government when Heathrow expansion was mooted. Heathrow expansion has become toxic, in the sense that it has become a symbol against which a large number of people for a number of different reasons could agree and coalesce: those opposed to any airport expansion for environmental reasons are joined by those who live under the flight path. I live not exactly under but close to the flight path into Heathrow, and I can hear a faint, droning noise as I type this piece.

Leaving aside the issue of political deliverability, there are two competing interpretations of the future needs in aviation capacity. There seems to be a broad political and business agreement, though hotly disputed by campaigners against any airport expansion, that there is a need to increase airport capacity in London and the surrounding areas. It may be argued that there are plenty of runways and capacity in London already (two at Heathrow, one each at Gatwick, City, Stansted, Luton, Southend), but they are not concentrated enough in one location or perhaps two places. The existing capacity may be sufficient for everyone who wants to come to London so long as passengers do not care which London airport they arrive at, but the argument is that the capacity needs to be concentrated, so that there are transfer passengers whose presence makes it commercially viable for airline companies to offer a wider range of destinations. British economic performance and competitiveness – the argument goes – depend on such wide array of direct-flight destinations. The difference between the competing narratives lies in whether there should be one big hub airport for London, or there could be a constellation of hub airports.

A decision to build a third runway at Heathrow means that there should be one big hub airport for London and the south east: the two options for Heathrow expansion under consideration are not mutually exclusive, as far as I can gather. In other words, building the north-east runway or extending the north runway does not render the other impossible. For that reason, many people suspect and I agree with their suspicion that if a third runway were to be built at Heathrow, a fourth would follow almost inevitably at some time later. For an extremely large hub, Heathrow is in the wrong place: it is simply not possible to move west London whose residents suffer noise and air pollution. For the residents living under the flight paths into Heathrow, where planes are making descent in a straight line, the noise and air pollution is probably going to be worse, simply because there will be more planes flying over their heads, even if the landing runway could be switched around to provide ‘relief’. If the government were to decide in favour of the idea of one big hub airport, then the options rejected by the commission such as building a new airport in the Thames Estuary or expanding Stansted into a four-runway airport which would be ambitious but might be more appropriate therefore certainly should be (re)considered.

If the commission recommends an expanded Gatwick, or the government adopts the Gatwick option regardless of the commission’s recommendations, then it raises an intriguing question as to what kind of airport it is going to be. An expanded Gatwick will probably become another hub airport rather than home to many point-to-point low-cost carriers, especially if Star Alliance and / or SkyTeam could be convinced to move from Heathrow to Gatwick. It will be a hub without a home airline as it were, in that there will be no similar presence to British Airways at Heathrow. Rather, Gatwick may start primarily as the destination for point-to-point flights, yet because so many people want to go to London as the final destination, making many flights with many routes viable, and given the close cooperation among airline alliance members, it ends up a hub airport for transfer passengers without particular airlines designating it as such, but a hub for an alliance or alliances. Would that be acceptable for the likes of Air France which has a vested interest in maintaining the prominence of Charles de Gaulle airport, or KLM at Schiphol, or Lufthansa at Frankfurt and Munich? It is an interesting, if contentious, possibility.

Whatever the next government decides – expand Heathrow or Gatwick in accordance with or in opposition to the commission’s recommendations, expand or build another airport ignoring the commission, or simply do nothing – it is going to invite criticisms.