Airports in London: build, expand, or do nothing?

Airports are back on the political agenda, or so it seems, in Britain. The question is if London requires more capacity in the present and in the future, and if that is indeed the case, what is the best way to meet such demand. Options such as building a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, or expanding Stansted, have been mentioned as possibilities. Perhaps this issue has come up, because it can be an issue in the upcoming London mayoral election, and die a quiet death after the election.

In a very simplified manner, which does not do justice to the various positions in the political spectrum, there is an ecological argument against an expansion of airport capacity, and there is an economic argument for an expansion of airport capacity in London. Given the undoubted environmental damages that flying causes, there is a strong argument against providing more airport capacity, because such will lead to more flights, more emissions, thus further harming the environment. The economic case is that there is already demand, which the current capacity does not meet, hence London, and by extension Britain, is losing out to other European competitors such as Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam.

The central problem is that while London already already has a huge amount of airport capacity, it is not concentrated in one place. Alongside Heathrow, there are Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, London City, just to name the well-known airports. The combined number of runways is six, which is on par with many other large cities in the world. There are also other less well-known “London” airports: Southend, Biggin Hill, Lydd (Ashford), and Oxford (Kidlington). In other words, there is plenty of capacity for people to come to London by arriving at one of those many airports, however, for airports and countries to remain competitive, it is argued, and to attract more airlines, destinations and people, they have to become hubs. Heathrow is one such hub, but it is more or less bursting at the seams, as there is very little spare capacity. I have been somewhat sceptical about the arguments for hubs or the benefits of people connecting to other flights at hubs, since if people need or wish to come to a destination, they would do so one way or another, even if a little inconvenient.

In other words, the question of airport capacity comes down to the question of a hub airport in London, and the problem is that Heathrow is a truly terrible hub. As mentioned above, there is already an acute capacity issue at Heathrow, but an expansion has been ruled out and it will probably not be in the offing for a few decades at least. Terminals can be built and rebuilt, however, there is a finite number of planes that can take off and land on the two runways at Heathrow. Its location is equally terrible. It is quite central, therefore convenient, but that also means that aeroplanes fly over densely populated areas at low altitudes, causing all kinds of pollution, noise and air foremost.

If I were in charge (which I am not, would not be and should not be), I’d close down Heathrow and at least another big airport in London, and build a new airport (or perhaps expand Stansted), with 4 or 5 runways, open 24 hours a day, to act as a hub and as the main airport for London. I would do so, because it is not the overall airport capacity in London that is the issue, but the main problem is that the current hub airport, Heathrow, cannot cope with the demand, and its expansion has been ruled out. Expanding another London airport by one runway will not solve this issue. However, I somehow doubt that there is or will be a political unity, the will, or the money, to make such a thing happen at this moment or any time soon.