London Airports Facing Capacity Crisis Within the Next Decade

Aerial View of London City Airport (Photo: London City Airport)

On Tuesday, the Government of the United Kingdom released the revised draft of the Airports National Policy Statement. The new draft is forecasting that four out of five of the major airports that serve the capital city of London will reach full capacity within the next ten years. It is anticipated that all five will be full by the 2030s.

The airports in question, Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and City, have all seen an increase in passenger numbers over the last decade. By 2050, the government estimates that demand at these airports will outstrip capacity by ‘at least 34%, even in the low demand forecast’.

These statistics will be met with alarm by those within the U.K aviation industry, where the current airport infrastructure in place is still very much a relic of the twentieth century. Environmental issues, population density and restricted space in the south-east of England has meant that major expansion has, so far, been impossible.

In the revised draft, the government also indicates that not increasing capacity will result in higher costs for passengers and the wider economy to the tune of £21-23 billion over 60 years. The draft also stated that not increasing capacity would “lower economic output by making aviation more expensive and less convenient to use, with knock-on effects in lost trade, tourism, and foreign direct investment.”

Heathrow Aiport (LHR) has consistently been one of the busiest aviation hubs in the world for decades. It now faces the possibility of being squeezed out in the face of fierce competition from the major hubs elsewhere in Europe and the Middle-East, unless a suitable resolution can be found.

Options for Expansion 

Heathrow Airport

The logical option would be to expand one or more of the airports in question, particularly Heathrow or Gatwick (LGW), the two busiest in the U.K. Indeed, these options have been discussed and debated in parliament for some time now, with no solution in sight. LHR is already, by far, the busiest two-runway airport in the world.

The preferred solution for a third runway would be to construct one in the north-west of the existing airport site. This idea was reinforced by the U.K Minister for Transport, Chris Grayling, who, at the launch of today’s draft, stated that “the north-west runway scheme at Heathrow is the one which delivers the greatest benefits soonest.”

Grayling went on to say, “This time last year, the government selected a new north-west runway at Heathrow as its preferred scheme for delivering much-needed new airport capacity in the south-east.” and “This was a move made in the national interest – to spread the opportunity to travel and trade throughout the UK, through more flights between our global aviation hub and our regional airports.”

Gatwick Airport

In the case of Gatwick Airport, expansion has been restricted since 1979 when an agreement was reached with the local county council that a second runway would not be built before 2019. Numerous proposals for a second runway were unveiled in 2013, carrying costs of between £5 billion and £9 billion.

Last year Birmingham Airport, the seventh busiest airport in the U.K, lent its support to a second runway at LGW as opposed to a third at LHR, with CEO Paul Kehoe stating that a third runway at LHR would inhibit growth in other airports, including Birmingham.

Despite the lack of progress in terms of runway expansion, LGW successfully modified its passenger terminal to accommodate the Airbus A380 widebody in 2013.

The novel concept of the “Heathwick” rail link, connecting LGW and LHR via a 35-mile high-speed rail route, has also been proposed. This optimistic scheme proposes a 15-minute journey between airports, with passengers going through the check-in and immigration process only once.

However, with a combination of high cost, complex construction, political issues and lack of enthusiasm from the industry, this idea appears to be destined to forever stay on the drawing board.

Alternatives Elsewhere in the U.K.

The focus here is very much around the capital, where the population is densest, tourist numbers are highest and where air travel is in most demand. LHR also handles more freight alone than the other U.K airports combined, so it is clear why there is such urgency with regard to finding a suitable solution to the question of capacity.

The biggest airport outwith London is Manchester Airport (MAN), around 160 miles north-west of the capital. With its two runways and three passenger terminals, it handled 25.6 million passengers in 2016, around 59% of the number who passed through LGW, and just a third of the number handled by LHR.

Passenger numbers are rising in the majority of major airports across the U.K. These figures go to show, however, that despite the desire for a thriving industry across the whole of the country, the question of capacity around London simply cannot be ignored for much longer.

Addressing this, Grayling indicated that Parliament will look at the wider U.K aviation strategy, stating, “the government will look beyond a potential new runway at Heathrow, and will set out an ambitious long-term vision for the sector, which will support economic growth across the whole of the UK.”

What Next?

Today’s revised draft will be subject to public consultation in order to gather response and feedback from the public and industry. The U.K. Secretary of State will then produce a final Airports National Policy Statement before Parliament. If that is successful, the final Airports National Policy Statement will be designated.

Only then will a strategy be finalized. Like all things in politics, it’s unlikely to be settled anytime soon.

Andy Nelson

Andy Nelson

Andy flew regularly from a young age on family holidays, but his interest in airplanes really began when he saw Concorde flying over his grandparents' house on final approach. He's about to begin his honors year studying electrical power engineering, and it's his ambition to one day work in the aviation industry in an engineering capacity. In his spare time, Andy writes, plays guitar, and takes a beating at squash.
Andy Nelson