March 12, 2013 11:14 pm

Unprepared for take-off: London’s airport dilemma

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Planes queueing to take off at Heathrow airport in London, England

Will the UK ever resolve its agonising over whether to build new airport runways? David Cameron, British prime minister, last September delayed a decision on expanding airport capacity in spite of repeated warnings by business leaders that the lack of new runways was holding back the UK’s economic recovery.

These business chiefs highlight how the UK is losing out in an international battle for connectivity to emerging markets – with airports in continental Europe, and newer hubs in the Gulf, being in a better position to provide routes to countries such as China.

Mr Cameron’s procrastination on new runways is yet another example of how politics has got in the way of rational policy making. He postponed a decision on airport capacity until after the 2015 general election in order to avoid a damaging split in the coalition government – because while the Conservatives are warming to the idea of new runways in the southeast of England, the Liberal Democrats are implacably opposed.

But in putting off a decision, Mr Cameron set up the independent Airports Commission to consider how best to preserve the UK’s status as an international aviation hub. This body is keen to defy expectations by providing a recommendation that Britain’s main political parties can unite around.

Chaired by Sir Howard Davies, the former head of the CBI employers’ body and the Financial Services Authority, the Airports Commission is expected to consider several options to address the looming capacity crunch at all the southeast’s main airports.

These will include the case for expanding London’s Heathrow airport, the UK’s only hub, which is already operating at near-full capacity on its two runways. Turning Heathrow into a four-runway hub would be highly contentious given many west London residents’ opposition to aircraft noise and environmental pollution.

. . .

Some of Heathrow’s rivals are also resisting its expansion. In December, Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate called for his airport to become a hub by adding a second runway. In a vision that may appeal to many pro-competition Conservative MPs, Mr Wingate said Stansted airport should also have two runways, and the two airports could then vie for business with Heathrow on a level playing field.

But some industry figures – led by Heathrow Airport Holdings, the airport’s owner – question this vision, saying that Heathrow’s hub business model is unlikely to be replicated at Gatwick or Stansted. British Airways offers a broad range of long-haul destinations out of Heathrow because it fills its aircraft with passengers who have arrived on short-haul flights. These transfer passengers ensure the long-haul network is profitable.

Lord Foster, the architect who has proposed a new four-runway airport in the Thames estuary, accepts this hub business model. But his team has chosen the Isle of Grain on Kent’s Hoo peninsula for the hub’s location, because, in contrast to Heathrow, this is a sparsely populated area.

Lord Foster’s proposal does, however, have opponents, because the estuary marshes are a protected habitat that provide an important breeding and feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of birds, many of them endangered species. And then there is the cost. While a third runway at Heathrow might have a £10bn price tag, a new hub airport in the Thames estuary could cost £23bn, if a basic rail link is included.

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