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Heathrow unveils options for third runway but is it too much too late?

Heathrow Airport submitted to the Airports Commission three options for solving the lack of hub airport capacity in the UK. They see requirement for a third runway to be placed to the north, north west or south west of the existing airport.

But is this too much too late?

All three options are supposedly quicker and cheaper than any rival hub option, delivering extra capacity by 2025-9 and for £14-18bn. According to the Heathrow all three runway options ‘put millions more people within easy reach of the UK’s hub airport than non-Heathrow options and all three protect the thriving businesses and plentiful jobs that surround Heathrow‘.

Heathrow Airport Benefits

Each option has its particular benefits, but Heathrow believes the two westerly options offer clear advantages. They deliver a full-length third runway while minimising the impact on the local community from noise and compulsory house purchases.

The north west option performs better on noise* and residential property impact than the north option whilst costing slightly more and taking slightly longer to build. The south west option further improves the situation for local residents but increases the cost, timescale and construction complexity. The north option is the quickest and cheapest, but offers the least noise benefits and has the biggest residential property impact.

Over the last year, Heathrow has looked at many different ways to solve the UK’s lack of hub airport capacity. Those have been gradually whittled down to the three options we are proposing today.

Colin Matthews, Heathrow’s chief executive, said, “After half a century of vigorous debate but little action, it is clear the UK desperately needs a single hub airport with the capacity to provide the links to emerging economies which can boost UK jobs, GDP and trade. It is clear that the best solution for taxpayers, passengers and business is to build on the strength we already have at Heathrow. Today we are showing how that vision can be achieved whilst keeping the impact on local residents to an absolute minimum.”

The two westerly options are radically different from the old, short third runway proposed by BAA in the last decade and have been informed by the recent proposals by Tim Leunig. Whilst there is still more work to be done on the precise detail, we believe they show why Heathrow should be included in the Commission’s shortlist at the end of the year. Each option would raise the capacity at Heathrow to 740,000 flights a year (from the current limit of 480,000). That would cater for 130m passengers, allow the UK to compete with our international rivals and provide capacity at the UK’s hub airport for the foreseeable future.

Heathrow Airport Third Runway North Option

Heathrow Airport Third Runway North Option

A third runway would provide benefits to the UK worth £100bn present value, well in excess of the benefits from Crossrail or HS2. Each of the options could be turned into a four runway solution should the demand increase in future. This is a more cost effective solution than building a new four runway airport from scratch when we may never need one.

Heathrow Airport Third Runway North West Option

Heathrow Airport Third Runway North West Option

A new Heathrow would benefit from already planned public transport improvements, such as Crossrail, Western Rail Access and High Speed 2 and the charges per passenger would be likely to be much lower than at a new hub airport. And despite the increase in capacity, the total number of people affected by noise from aircraft will fall. This is due in part to the westerly options being positioned further from London than the existing runways. Each mile the runway is moved to the west puts arriving aircraft approximately 300ft higher over London. Continued improvements in aircraft and air traffic technology will also result in fewer people being disturbed. As a result, even with a third runway there will be 10-20% fewer people within Heathrow’s noise footprint in 2030 than today.

Heathrow Airport Third Runway South West Option

Heathrow Airport Third Runway South West Option

Expansion at Heathrow can also be met within EU climate change targets. This is made possible by continued improvements to aircraft efficiency which mean that air traffic could double by 2050 without a substantial increase in emissions. If carbon trading is included, emissions would be reduced. Similarly Heathrow would improve local air quality in line with EU standards because of cleaner vehicles and the increased proportion of passengers using public transport.

There are other options on the table outside of Heathrow. A project favoured by Boris Johnson is an all new airport to the east of London in the Thames estuary, north Kent.  Although it would remove the ‘stress’ from Heathrow it may also mean that jobs are lost there too. Bird strikes could be an issue, a lack of infrastructure is a major stumbling block and there is the small problem of the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery which sank in 1944 in very shallow water. This ship has around 1,400 tons of explosives on board and a safe way to remove the wreck and cargo has not yet been found!

An additional runway could be added to Gatwick and with Luton and Stanstead to the north of the capital there are further options at these locations that could take the extra capacity away from Heathrow.

It may be the international airlines that eventually force the decision of where expansion takes place. With profits at the top of their agendas along with making it as easy as possible to maintain passenger retention regarding connecting flights  as many have connection flights from LHR – we  my just see aircraft landing on top of the M25 ( on the south west runway!).


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