After more than two years, a commission set up to determine how aviation infrastructure should be improved in the southeast of England has made its final report, a 300-plus-page document recommending a new third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, the third busiest in the world.
The Heathrow northwest runway proposal was picked over other (cheaper) shortlisted plans to extend Heathrow’s current northern runway or to add a second parallel runway at Gatwick Airport, London’s second biggest hub.
The decision should be music to the ears of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., which threw its hat in the ring with Heathrow. Coveted landing slots at the airport were said to be a major driver behind Delta’s decision to buy a 49 percent stake in Virgin Atlantic Airways, which in October began serving Heathrow nonstop from Atlanta.
The commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies concluded that adding a third independent runway northwest of the current runway at Heathrow would make the most economic sense, enabling the airport to reach 740,000 takeoffs and landings per year. Positioning it slightly to the northwest of current runways would reduce the noise impact and limit displacement of nearby homes, the commission concluded.
Ultimately, the value of global connectivity seems to have won out over fiscal or not-in-my-backyard concerns, though the commission aims to preempt local opposition, which has derailed past expansion plans. The proposal calls for noise taxes that would help fund mitigation efforts at homes and schools. It also calls for a ban on night flights, a reimbursement scheme of full value plus 25 percent for those who lose their homes to the expansion and a commitment in Parliament never to build a fourth runway.
The new runway at Heathrow is expected to lead to service to 40 new destinations, including 10-12 long-haul routes. That would generate £147 billion (about about $226 billion) in GDP impacts over six decades and over 70,000 new jobs by 2050, all without adding to the current noise levels.
Gatwick’s proposal, meanwhile, was seen favorably but lost out mainly because it wasn’t seen as connecting London better to the faraway emerging destinations that will be driving global growth in the coming decades.
“The Gatwick scheme is feasible, but the additional capacity would be more focused on short-haul intra-European routes and the economic benefits considerably smaller,” according to a short summary of the report.
Some observers praised the recommendation, saying after years of dithering that it’s high time the U.K. government did something about an aviation infrastructure that’s constraining, rather than enabling, growth. The Economist pointed out that London’s main three airports (including Stansted) host 16 million more passengers than New York’s with five fewer runways (nine to four).
But the recommendation is not binding and action not guaranteed. As the Economist points out, many powerful cabinet officials and members of parliament, including London Mayor Boris Johnson, still oppose the Heathrow plan.
Business boosters around Gatwick are incredulous, noting the opposition and the burden the Heathrow plan will place on public finances, including £6 billion alone to build a tunnel for the M25 highway under the runway.
“I personally am mystified as to how local MPs can say Heathrow is preferable to Gatwick as every argument they raise against Gatwick is multiplied many times over for Heathrow in terms of the number of people affected, the cost to the public purse, the air quality issues and the impact on employment and housing, let alone the political opposition from Government heavyweights such as Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith [both members of the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron, who ordered the report],” said Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of Gatwick Diamond Business, an economic development outfit for the area around the airport.
Mr. Taylor and others also say the hub argument is overplayed.
“The U.K. is a destination, and with London as the financial capital of the world as well as being one of the key global tourism destinations, point-to-point travel is the future,” Mr. Taylor told Airport City by email.
Opponents have made plans to press on with challenges to the plan. Mr. Cameron has said he will make a decision on the plan by the end of the year.
Read the full report here.