The Painfully Slow Process to Expand London Airports Continues to be Painfully Slow

LHR - London/Heathrow

If you were to pick the least friendly government when it came to aviation, you’d probably settle on the United Kingdom. On the one hand, it has absurdly high taxes, but on the other hand it refuses to spend that tax revenue on actually improving the infrastructure needed to support air travel growth. It sees air travel as a sin despite so many others recognizing the tremendous value. The end result is complete and total inaction, and that leaves just about everyone frustrated.

The problem is really centered on London, a global capital that carries the lion’s share of international traffic in the country. When it comes to airports, London is like New York but with higher taxes for travelers. Unlike New York, London really has only one major intercontinental gateway, and that’s Heathrow. But there are 5 other actual airports and 1 insane proposal for an airport that also serve London, or at least parts of it. Now a fight is brewing since only one will be allowed to grow in the next 15 years.

A silly amount of money has been poured into Heathrow, located west of London, over the last few years. First it was BA’s new Terminal 5 and there was a renovation of Terminal 3. Then it was the new Queen’s Terminal which will be the new home of the Star Alliance starting in June. But all this shuffling is simply making the experience better for travelers and not increasing the number of airplanes that can come and go. There are still just two lonely runways at Heathrow and the airport is effectively full.

London’s second airport is Gatwick, located to the south of town. Gatwick was a familiar spot for many an American heading to London before “open skies” took effect. It used to be that the only American carriers that could use Heathrow were Pan Am and TWA (which sold their rights to United and American). Everyone else had to use Gatwick. Once the skies opened, airlines fled to Heathrow, the preferred gateway for the high dollar business traveler. US Airways pulled the last flight from the US to Gatwick on a US-based carrier last year. You’ll still see a couple between Gatwick and Florida on BA and Virgin, but that’s because Gatwick is a bigger leisure airport. Those flights bring Brits down to see Mickey Mouse.

Gatwick has had a transformation of sorts in recent years. Under new, independent management, it has successfully grown to be a low cost carrier hub. In fact, easyJet has its largest base at Gatwick and controls nearly half the traffic there. Its recent agreement to buy Flybe’s slots makes it even stronger. But with just one runway in use (the busiest single runway airport in the world), Gatwick is also bursting at the seems. It just signed a deal to grow at Gatwick, but opportunities are limited because of runway constraints.

While there are other airports in the region, they all serve their niches and nothing more. London City is a bustling short haul airport with a very tiny runway that serves as the financial sector’s choice for travel throughout Europe due to its proximity to Canary Wharf. Stansted is the other big low cost airport in town sitting on the north side. Both are near capacity in their own right. Luton and even little Southend serve the people primarily in their immediate area and haven’t received much traction. So those two aren’t really candidates for serving London’s growing needs.

With the biggest airports hamstrung, what’s next? You would think there would be some efforts to add runways and you’d be right. But the process moves at a snail’s pace.

There have been many proposals for new capacity. My favorite to mock is so-called Boris Island, named after the biggest supporter of the plan, London Mayor Boris Johnson. He wants to knock down Heathrow and redevelopment it as housing, shopping etc. Then he wants to build a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, WAY east of London. The cost? Only a couple hundred BILLION dollars.

The UK Airports Commission has said that plan is not on its shortlist, but it still hasn’t ruled it out completely. Hopefully it will kill this plan, just as it did the plan to add runways at Stansted.

The commission does, however, see a need for a new runway… by the year 2030. Geez. Oh, and there might be a need for another one by 2050. It’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to do anything.

The commission likes either a new runway at Heathrow or at Gatwick for this round. That has the two airports fighting each other.

Gatwick says that Heathrow is too expensive for low cost carriers, and since low cost carriers are the fastest growing players in the industry, Gatwick should get the runway to serve them. But easyJet threw them under the bus by saying the airline would look at flying at Heathrow if there was capacity. Of course, as low cost carriers like easyJet grow to serve more business travelers, that’s a natural thing to consider.

But Heathrow’s argument is that it is the world gateway and it needs more runways to serve the world’s business travelers. Many agree with that sentiment, including Delta’s SVP of Europe, Middle East, and Africa Perry Cantarutti. In a hilariously ironic quote, Perry says that “Cities that offer two hub airports tend to be a limiter for airlines and for passengers. It’s not a viable alternative.”

Hmm, he might want to talk to his colleague Gail Grimmett who runs Delta’s split New York hub at JFK and LaGuardia. That seems to be viable, if not ideal. But the point is still valid. Adding a runway at Heathrow is likely more beneficial than adding one at Gatwick to the business traveler. But why the heck do we have to choose?

Both airports should have a new runway and it should come much sooner than 2030. There is demand and it’s not being met. Thank you, UK, for showing the world how not to handle aviation policy.

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50 comments on “The Painfully Slow Process to Expand London Airports Continues to be Painfully Slow

  1. One big objection to adding more runways at Heathrow is that the path of the planes would take them over an upper class residential area whose residents apparently have a lot of clout with the govt. and have raised strong objections over the noise issue. It is a classic “not in my neighborhood” situation.

    1. 100% accurate.

      The best way to get yourself stabbed is to walk around Ealing preaching a new runway at Heathrow.

      Most of the residents in West London are fighting to restrict the current capacity at Heathrow, mention expansion and it brings out the pitchforks…or if your a politician you lose re-election.

    2. The irony being that were the airport to be moved, their property values would fall because good access to the airport is priced in.
      The residents only have clout with the current governing parties. They won’t be on Labour’s target list – so things might change.
      Also – how old is that Delta photo in the Evening Standard!

    3. If you head due west from Heathrow’s north runway, you’ll notice a little place called “Windsor Castle”. The lady of the house apparently has some clout with the government (including the ability to sack it outright).

  2. Worth noting that Stansted in 2013 saw 6 million fewer passengers than it did in 2007. Given the changes in the terminal since 2007 (no-longer-needed check-in desks coverted to enlarged security screening), it could probably squeeze in perhaps another 10 million passengers on top of 2013. I therefore do not believe it’s anywhere near capacity. Stansted’s owner recently resorted to offering cut-price deals to Ryanair + Easyjet just to fill the spare capacity.

    Luton serves approx 10 million passengers per year – there are current plans to expand capacity to 18 million,over the next few years – although the owner Aena need to figure out their capital raising plans. Yes, Luton has its own issues (poor ground transport) but it attracts passengers from a wide area. Outside the 6 am – 8 am morning peak, the terminal has plenty more capacity.

    Yes, Heathrow is full, but at other airports, there’s still plenty of capacity, *especially* at off peak times.
    It should also be noted, that none of the airports are owned by central Govt – unlike the USA, they are owned (or long-term leased) by private companies with shareholders – Govt tax revenue should not be there to subsidise for-profit companies

    1. Minor correction – Luton airport is owned by the Govt for Luton (provincial town), but is on a 20-year lease to Aena who also run many other airports. Aena is responsible for capital investment, while Luton’s local Govt just collects the annual rent to subsidise local Govt services.

    2. What about aircraft movements? Those are what is limited by the runways. In many places there is a trend for smaller planes flying to more destinations more frequently.

      1. Roger – Aircraft movements at Stansted are down significantly as well. But Stansted is not going to serve the business traveler. Airlines have tried on a couple occasions to fly from the US to Stansted and they’ve failed miserably. It could absorb more low cost carrier operations, but you won’t see it get more service from airlines targeting business traffic. (Not entirely true in the sense that easyJet and Ryanair are now trying to cater more toward business travelers, ever so slightly, but you get the distinction.)

  3. Oh Luton…. I have flown out of there three times. It is a pain. Far from London, so you have to take the tube to a train (a real train, not the tube) to a bus. And, it is low cost central, so there is no service and you are shuffled around. I feel like no one knew what was going on – all three times.

    Gatwick is fine and you can take a train from central London, but if your flight is early, then you can’t take a train and the ride down in a car is expensive.

    Heathrow is the way to go… That’s my 2 cents.

    1. There are direct trains all night from central London to Gatwick airport 7 days a week – there’s no need to take a taxi if you don’t want to pay for it

      1. Luton. No contest. LaGuardia is actually somewhere useful which is a mitigation Luton can’t claim.

  4. You mentioned that London is like NYC but with airport taxes. Worth noting that London still manages to get about 25% more passengers than EWR+LGA+JFK combined – things can’t be that bad…

    1. David – When you’re on an island, people will fly more. (Yes, Manhattan is an island but that’s far different than Britain when it comes to ease of access via personal vehicles.)

      1. And there is that “Commonwealth” thingy that seems to generate quite a lot of long-haul traffic.

        The rail connection between the UK and the continent opened 20 years ago. There still is no convenient way to get from the UK to Europe by car.
        So, flying remains high on the list of options.

  5. The real gem to all of this is all of the money going in to CrossRail ( The key benefit is to get people from Heathrow to the City without having to change trains at Paddington (and eliminate the high cost of Heathrow Express). So, while everyone is bickering about what to do, every £ of investment is around Heathrow (terminals, infrastructure, customer experience, …). BOTH Gatwick and Heathrow should get additional capacity. Luton and city are the niche airports and can maintain themselves. They are not international gateways and never will be.

    1. The current assumption is that there will be 24 trains per hour on the central section of Crossrail, of which four will go to Heathrow. So it’s a bit of a stretch calling the Heathrow service ‘the key benefit’ of Crossrail – yes it will be an improvement for Heathrow users, but that is certainly not the main driver of Crossrail.

      1. So, equivalent to the Heathrow Express with the upside of no changes at Paddington and congestion relief for the rest of the central London services. I’m not saying a key benefit, the Crossrail team is. We could debate that endlessly as well.

        1. No, you said *the* key benefit. I have never seen the crossrail team say that.

          Crossrail is certainly significant to Heathrow. But Heathrow is much less significant to Crossrail.

  6. If only it were that simple.

    Heathrow has two enormous problems, neither of which have good solutions but which together go a long way to explaining why this is such a painful process.

    One is that the site is physically very constrained so there isn’t a very sensible place to put a third runway – so they will have to resort to squeezing it into a less sensible place. The other is that Heathrow is a completely unsuitable place for an airport in the first place. The runways run W-E (as would the putative third runway) and the prevailing landing direction is from the east – which means low flying over miles of densely populated city. The consequence is dramatic: of all the people affected by aircraft noise across the entire European Union, 28% are affected by Heathrow – three times as many people as Frankfurt and four times as many as by Paris CDG. So it’s not very surprising that when there is a proposal to make Heathrow bigger and busier, it’s not met with benign acceptance.

    So there is an argument for starting again somewhere more sensible (and an opportunity to do exactly that was missed 40 years ago). Building an airport west of London solves both problems – a new site could be designed for four runway operation from the outset, and approaches would be over the sea. Saying there is an argument is not to say that it’s the right answer – of course the cost would be very substantial and the disruption very great. But it would be a serious long term solution. Heathrow could be bodged again – but bodging is the best that can be done and it’s not nearly as obvious as you suggest that that’s the right answer either.

    1. maybe a silly question but why can’t the prevailing landing direction approach from the west instead of the east?

        1. i knew it was a stupid question but at least now i know the answer!

          my next stupid question would be why the runways aren’t aligned north/south…

    2. It’s funny because the air traffic over NYC is arguably denser (because the airports are more closely clustered to eachother than London’s) and the aircraft are just as frequent and low-flying, yet you never hear anyone in New York complaining…

  7. And I should add that an airport west of London doesn’t necessarily mean the plan the tabloids call Boris Island – I am not arguing for or against that as a specific proposal; I am arguing against the idea that expanding Heathrow is intrinsically a sensible thing to do .

    1. And again, east of London not west of London. I was clearly having a small geographic fit earlier

  8. Florida is not the only Gatwick destination in the US: there are also flights to Vegas, on both British and Virgin.

    1. Ron – Yes, BA has a couple a week into Gatwick (the daily flight goes to Heathrow) and Virgin flies daily. But of course, that’s the same issue as Florida – heavy inbound traffic from London.

  9. Brett, I know you’re well-read and most thorough in your researching, but this goes well beyond the terminal inertia of public planning/development in the UK. I fly frequently, as you know, and almost always use Heathrow – a third runway would be a boon there, for sure. Wherever you live in London, invariably you live either under a flight path or, more likely, under one of the ‘stacks’ – my house is over-flown by the Heathrow/Stansted/Luton stacks (not that I care, being an plane geek); but, as anyone who’s flown into LHR can testify to, you RARELY fly straight in (unless you’re on BA metal, and even then, not always). There’s ALWAYS a delay to land, such is the congestion. Now, if they could look at alternative approach strategies (higher altitude for longer, steeper descents) then maybe those delays would be alleviated. The quality of life for those directly under the flightpaths is very adversely affected – and not ALL of those people moved to live there knowing what they were letting themselves in for – my understanding is that the LHR approach has actually changed in recent years, such that those living near the Thames (Kew, South London etc.) now get very low altitude flying for 18hrs a day.

    ALL planning projects in the UK are a murderously slow process – Boris Island really isn’t going to happen, but he likes to talk about it…..

  10. Wonderful write-up, Cranky. And, thanks to all of you who have commented.

    Thank God [or, your alternative, if you want], we in the good, old [don’t laugh, to us, it is] US of A, have nothing we could ever call “painfully slow,” or even “murderously slow” when it comes to transportation projects. Just got back riding the Silver Line to Dulles (that’s Phase II, I believe of, Phase I which may or may not ever get up and operate) and yesterday, crossed the new bridge across the Potomac west of DC. Really something! The Cherry Blossoms were great, oh wait, maybe June, now?

    Life…painfully simple!


  12. The reason why LHR expansion has been dragging on so long is purely down to politics. The current party in power (albeit in coalition) got cornered into giving a pledge not to support a third runway during the last election. Too many constituencies on which it relies are in the areas directly affected by LHR. They kicked it into the long grass with a pledge to have an official review with the findings due after the election next year. I suspect that the next government will have adopt the findings, which will include an extra runway at LHR and LGW. Neither of the solutions are really ideal, due being landlocked towns surrounding them. Nobody has mentioned HS2 a high speed rail link to the north of the UK which is also causing huge controversy with the usual nimbies causing a riot (again in Tory constituencies), but if this goes ahead could alleviate domestic traffic pressures with vastly reduced journey times to the north of the UK. Growth in air and rail traffic is inevitable and this has to be met by expansion of vital UK infrastructure. Hopefully sanity will prevail, eventually.

  13. You forgot the idea to lengthen one oh Heathrow’s runway to the point to have take off’s and landing’s and the same time. It was proposed to be like 25,000 ft (yes it’s out there). I personally think Gatwick should get the runway if (and realizing if is the key word) they can get support from more airlines to fly there. I personally would go with DL and skyteam with Virgin. And then pull a Beijing and have a nonstop high speed that goes from the airport to downtown and connect with the tube and regional rail thus making it more attractive with commuters. Of course I’m saying all this having never been to London before.

  14. Terrible, terrible long-term planning in London. They should look to Berlin to learn how to do things right. Oh wait…

  15. I think the UK is handling aviation policy just fine. There are things to consider before you just start building runways. People have to be relocated and appropriately compensated for their land, noise has to be mitigated, and so on. The UK is a democracy, not a dictatorship like China or the UAE where authorities can simply say “get out of your home, the bulldozers are coming tomorrow”.

  16. The MAIN problem with adding another runway to Heathrow is not just that it will affect the high class around Heathrow but that it will basically affect the entire city.
    If you’ve ever flown in to Heathrow then you’ll realise what I mean, any approach in to 27R or L (the two main ones due to prevailing winds) involves you basically flying over the entirety of London.
    To solve this the aircraft shouldn’t descend to approach height until much later, this would allow less noise pollution on those below as well as less fuel to be burnt by the aircraft approaching.
    However, the main problem is that those who decide whether or not this happens (government) don’t see the huge advantages that Heathrow brings to London clearly enough and so therefore spend forever just faffing about with things like Boris Island.

  17. Reminds me of the problems we’ve been having here in Sydney. The gov has been discussing the need for a new airport since the 1960s. But they can’t seem to decide on a site to commit to for fear of hurting people’s feelings or farmland, or somethin’. There was even proposals a few years back to kick the RAAF out of the airbase and convert that into a passenger terminal. Pretty sad a gov would even think of ejecting our air force from one of its primary bases just to spare the civilian population from having to deal with a new airport.

    1. Move a few thousand able-bodied young people who are used to following orders for the benefit of a few million civilians who will complain no matter what you do? Sounds like a reasonable plan to me actually.

      Commercial jets require proximity to a city. Military jets do not. The defence of Sydney would not be significantly affected by moving the RAAF base 100 km or so out of town.

  18. Well, feel free to add into the list of most unfriendly countries for Aviation. We have great airports, but not enough rights for airlines, especially international, to operate in and out of the country. along with the sides of High taxes, high ATF rate etc etc.

    Also, Gatwick is not exactly a LCA hub these days, it used to be. Plenty of international full service airlines fly there, including Emirates, which does a daily A380 service. Not low cost for sure.

  19. Every time I get disheartened at the slow pace of transport planning here in the US, I remember that it could always be worse.

    These same proposals for London airport expansion have been floating around since the early 1970s. First it was going to be the new airport on the Maplin Sands, not terribly far from today’s Boris Island. Then it was going to be Gatwick, until the locals there managed to secure a pledge that no new runways would be added for 50 (50!) years. Then Stansted was the great white hope of London airport capacity. About the only sensible thing that’s been done in the last twenty years was wrestling control of Gatwick and Stansted away from BAA, arguably one of the worst airport operators in the world.

    Here in the US it requires an inordinate amount of patience to get large infrastructure projects off paper, but efforts are occasionally successful. The UK seems to love dithering and kicking the can down the road for another decade. I have zero confidence any of these proposals will ever see the light of day.

  20. Find other options! Even with award tickets, the UK’s fees, surcharges and taxes have priced them out of the reasonable market. Flying direct or transferring at some Non-UK point makes a lot more sense for most trips. Oh so sad to say, but the UK is a has-been, trying to maintain player status, but not able to afford it. Unless one must visit the UK for some purpose, bypass whenever possible.

  21. So, Heathrow has two runways against Gatwick’s one, therefore Heathrow handles double the number of movements, does it? The hell it does. Gatwick’s runway is fully used i.e. take-off, landing, take-off landing…all day. At Heathrow, they use one runway for landings only and the other for take-offs. Then they switch them around to try and annoy as many people as possible on the ground, the great majority of whom live in houses built after 1946 which was when Heathrow started up.

    1. Doug, your logic is flawed. If you assume that a takeoff takes the same amount of time as a landing, one runway having continuous landings and another having continuous takeoffs has exactly twice the capacity one runway alternating. This presumes that alternating doesn’t take up any additional time.

      The numbers for 2013:
      LGW: 250,520 Movements – 35,444,206 Passengers
      LHR: 471,936 Movements – 72,367,054 Passengers

      So LHR does almost twice as many movements at LGW, though LHR moves far more passengers than double.

  22. Can they do an “Osaka” there? Or is the geology/hydrology too difficult?

    Put in 2 more runways at LHR, have them for narrowbodies and do the SNA takeoff so the wealthy folk won’t get their precious eardrums damaged.

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