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Neverending story: London Heathrow expansion plans explained

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London’s Heathrow Airport is full. At least it was before the pandemic, for many years – and we can be pretty confident that it will be again. Slots to take off and land at the airport are some of the most valuable in the world. In fact Heathrow (LHR) is the busiest two runway airport in the world. In 2019 Heathrow saw 80.9 million passengers, its ninth consecutive year of growth. It operated at 99% capacity in terms of aircraft movements, and there’s a long list of airlines that would like to fly there but can’t, even if they’re ready to pay for the privilege. And therein lies the problem: Heathrow needs a third runway to grow and meet demand, but not everyone agrees it should expand.

Though London has five airports (more if you count those further out like Southend (SEN)) everybody who’s anybody wants to be at Heathrow. It’s the party everyone wishes they were invited to. Takeoff slots at Heathrow have sold for as much $75 million. That’s why it was big news when Britain’s Supreme Court ruled last week that planning for a third runway could go ahead, reversing an earlier court decision to block it.

Twists and turns of Heathrow expansion plans third runway
An Iberia A350 lands at Heathrow.

A long-running battle

Understanding the significance of this, and the reason advocates of a Heathrow expansion shouldn’t count their chickens just yet, requires a look at some recent Heathrow history. The airport’s potential expansion has been the source of long-running battles and debate in the UK, with the new runway plan seeing several stops and starts over that time.

The third runway was first approved by the British government back in 2009. But a change of government in 2010 saw that reversed. David Cameron at the time indicated there was no way the plan would go ahead. Five years later, however, an “Airports Commission” set out to study the capacity issues for London’s airports and come up with a solution. It recommended a new runway at Heathrow as the most effective way to tackle the problem. In 2018, Ministers of Parliament voted to approve the third runway. In February 2020, however, an Appeals Court deemed it illegal. The court cited that fact that if the runway were to go ahead, Britain would be even less likely to meet its carbon reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Heathrow London BA 747-400 takeoff
Takeoff from London Heathrow onboard a British Airways 747-400. The sprawling Terminal 5 and many aircraft visible below. Photo: Gabriel Leigh

Arguments for an expansion

The potential advantages of added capacity at Heathrow are mostly obvious: more people coming through means more economic activity and more local jobs. It would also in theory mean fewer delays at Heathrow, and less time spent in the infamous Heathrow “stacks” or holding patterns. That would mean time saved by passengers and less fuel burned unnecessarily in the skies above London.

London Heathrow Emirates 777
An Emirates 777-300ER lands at London Heathrow.

Plenty of arguments against

On the other hand there are real environmental concerns around adding yet more planes to Southeast England’s airspace. In fact the court that blocked the third runway plan earlier this year did so because of environmental concerns. For local residents there is also the matter of the land that the third runway would have to take over (some homes and businesses would have to be torn down, including an entire village), and the increased noise, traffic and pollution that would naturally come from an expanding airport. Greenworld lays out the environmental arguments here.

So when will we see the third runway?

It will be a while before the bulldozers starts digging. And that’s if it ever happens. The Supreme Court’s decision means that the airport authorities can pursue “planning permission” for the third runway, but that could take a year or more. There would also be a public inquiry, and public opinion is clearly split on this subject. There will be a segment of the population that will not be so easy to convince. Beyond that, the UK government gets to make a final decision – and depending what the government looks like by then, it’s not clear they would give it the go-ahead despite the courts saying a third runway is legal, and even if a majority of the public supports it. Legal battles over the runway will likely continue as well.

Heathrow London British Airways London skyline third runway
A great view of London from the approach path to Heathrow. Photo: Gabriel Leigh

Best plan on entering into a holding pattern for the foreseeable future when coming into Heathrow. But look on the bright side: if you pick a window seat and the weather cooperates that could mean some fantastic views of London. And if traffic picks up again next year and you happen to get into one of the longer holds, you could be soaking up those views for up to an hour.

Featured image © Ethan Hew
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