Heathrow Expansion – why it’s needed

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Featured Image: Artist’s impression on how a third runway might look (bottom left runway in image). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Apologies for the long gap between my last blog post entry and this one, life’s been particularly busy of late. Normal service should now resume, and for this first blog after the break, I’m going to step away from my usual rail focus and take a look at a hot topic within another interest of mine, aviation.

Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport – around 80 million people travel through each year, taking off and landing on one of the airport’s two runways. Whilst Heathrow, in conjunction with NATS (who manage airspace across the UK, as well as aeroplane movements at a large number of the UK’s airports) work to maximise how many planes can arrive and depart from the airport, the lack of a third runway means that there’s currently limited scope to provide further additional capacity, and the growth in passenger demand doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

To address this, in late 2016 after a protracted political process, the Government granted Heathrow permission to build a third runway to the northwest of the existing airport, along with an additional terminal. Heathrow are currently going through a consultation phase to get interested parties’ feedback on the proposals.

Terminal 2 sign at Heathrow Airport. Terminal 2 is the newest Heathrow terminal, opened in 2014.

The management team at Gatwick – the UKs second busiest airport, currently serving c. 45 million passengers a year – argued during the process that they should have the additional runway instead. They had a strong case for this, particularly as it’s the only other London airport with full airside connections infrastructure. (Interestingly, whilst researching this article I found out that it looks like they might get a second runway anyway by converting an existing runway currently only cleared for use in emergencies).

In the rest of this article, I’m going to outline why I think – regardless of what happens with Gatwick’s ‘new’ second runway bid – Heathrow needs an additional runway, even though I’m sympathetic to local residents who would be displaced by the scheme.

An Etihad A380 shortly after departure from Heathrow. The A380 was designed specifically with hub airports in mind – maximising passenger numbers but requiring supporting infrastructure at airports they land at. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

More so than any other UK airport, Heathrow is designed to accommodate passengers connecting as well as those starting/ending their journey at the airport, and the passenger experience when connecting at Heathrow is usually good, even when connecting between terminals.

Low-cost carriers (LCCs), to keep costs down, will typically not pay airports to manage airside connections for their passengers – as such (with a few exceptions) passengers connecting through a UK airport on a LCC have to follow the full arrivals channel, clear immigration (if not a domestic flight) and collect/re-check any hold luggage. Gatwick is a major hub for easyJet and also hosts London flights for several LCCs based outside the UK such as Norwegian and WestJet, and they, along with holiday charter airlines like TUI, make up a large amount of Gatwick’s current flight schedule.

easyJet plane on stand at Luton Airport.

Whilst there are a number of flights from Gatwick with full-service airlines too, the larger percentage of LCC flights significantly limits airside connectivity at Gatwick relative to Heathrow, who primarily host full-service airlines in major airline alliances, so a far larger number of connecting itineraries are possible.

Why does this matter to travellers starting/finishing their journeys at Heathrow? Simply put, airlines want to fill their planes as much as possible – and connecting passengers are a significant contributory factor to this. As such, the ease of connecting at Heathrow also benefits those who start/finish their journey there in terms of the choice of destinations and frequency of flights. An additional runway would allow airlines to further expand their range of routes in/out of the UK, which would benefit everyone.

I’d be interested to hear readers’ views on Heathrow’s expansion plans in the comments section below, and I also urge anyone with a particular interest in the proposals to check them out on the official consultation site and add your thoughts there regarding any areas where you have a strong view. The consultation closes on 13th September and I’ll be watching developments with interest! Also welcome your views on whether you’d like to see more aviation-focused articles moving forward.

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