Does London Need Another Runway?

As the debate continues to rage, with Heathrow & Gatwick both claiming to be the best option for an additional runway, I thought it might be interesting to review the current situation and ask whether an extra runway is needed at all.

London has six international airports within an hour’s drive or train-ride of the centre: Stansted (north), City (east/central), Southend (east), Luton (northwest), Heathrow (west) and Gatwick (south).

The BBC recently featured a useful summary which pointed out that, “Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has said the UK needs to increase its aviation hub capacity to compete with international rivals. That view is shared by some politicians and business leaders, but others argue that no credible case has been made.”

The situation is further complicated by the appallingly inaccurate forecasts made by UK’s Department of Transport:

From a purely competition-oriented viewpoint, it makes little sense to expand Heathrow, which already represents almost half of London’s passenger traffic:

Airport Pax %
HEATHROW 73,823,635 49%
GATWICK 39,048,023 26%
STANSTED 21,473,072 14%
LUTON 11,190,751 7%
LONDON CITY 4,051,915 3%
SOUTHEND 1,010,998 1%
TOTAL 150,598,394

Normally, I’d expect the competition authorities to be interested in this sort of situation, yet in this case we have a government department apparently prepared to expand a private firm’s dominant market position.

From an environmental perspective, Heathrow noise affects 725,000 people & there are claims that a third runway there would raise this to more than a million. Gatwick Airport by contrast claims that just 36,000 people are affected by noise from its flights.

One argument for expanding Heathrow was the idea that a large hub benefits from economies of scale: more routes attract more passengers, which in turn finance additional routes. Yet less than 1% of Heathrow’s passengers are transit, so where is the benefit?

Even some of Heathrow’s biggest customers are not in favour: Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG (owner of British Airways) was quoted recently as saying the £17.6bn price-tag “cannot be justified on any basis”.

Another factor which appears not to be considered is the dis-economies of scale that result from a very large airport: traffic congestion getting to & from the terminals (on rail as well as road); time taken to get through security etc. These factors can add significantly to total journey time (especially for short hops such as domestic routes) compared with using smaller regional airports. London City and my local airport in Jersey, Channel Islands are great examples of this: I can be through either airport in a few minutes.

If so little of Heathrow’s traffic is transit, why not move some of the domestic flights to other airports such as under-utilized Southend, thus freeing up slots at Heathrow for higher-value long-haul traffic?

And here’s another thought: in Asia, popular 1-2 hour intra-regional routes are often served by large aircraft such as 747s; in UK many of these routes use 737s or A319s but with many flights per day. Whilst this might appear to offer consumers more choice, perhaps CAA or Airports should consider runway pricing that encourages the use of larger planes & less frequent flights on these routes, thus freeing up slots to handle additional long-haul routes without the need for another runway.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 7 September 2015