Even amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, London Heathrow (LHR) is comfortably the busiest airport in the UK. Before the global health crisis, increasing congestion at the slot-controlled hub led to plans for a third runway to ease this burden. The project has since been the subject of a series of legal battles, and COVID has been an additional hurdle in the last year. So, with all this in mind, when exactly will the airport build the new runway?
Fewer runways than elsewhere
While a hugely significant airport, London Heathrow is something of an anomaly among Europe’s intercontinental hubs. While Amsterdam Schipol and Frankfurt International boast six and four runways respectively, Heathrow has just two. Typically, one runway is used for takeoffs and the other for landings, with a switch during the day for noise alteration.
While this setup is very straightforward and functional, it does also present its own problems. Specifically, it means that there can only be one aircraft landing and one departing at a time. Meanwhile, airports like the aforementioned Frankfurt have the means, under certain wind conditions, to facilitate parallel arrivals.
A question of congestion
Due to this, Heathrow is comparatively limited in the number of aircraft that it can process in a given time. As such, there are relatively few slots available at the airport, and their rarity can demand huge prices when changing hands. For example, Air New Zealand sold its slot at the UK’s busiest airport for an eye-watering $27 million in March 2020.
Even for airlines that succeed in obtaining these lucrative slots, the difficulties are not over. With just two runways available, delays can quickly cause extensive congestion, both on the ground and in the air on approach. As such, in 2007, the UK government opened a period of consultation regarding a potential third runway to ease Heathrow’s congestion. This would be slightly shorter than the existing runways (2,200 m vs 3,660 and 3,902 m).
A hot topic among politicians
Nearly 15 years have followed since the opening of the initial consultation period. During this time, Heathrow’s proposed third runway has remained one of the country’s most fiercely debated infrastructure projects. It was initially scrapped in May 2010 by the newly-formed Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. However, by 2016, the plan had been adopted as a central part of Government policy.
Despite this, the project has faced extensive opposition from the environmental lobby and local residents groups. Interestingly, the majority of the UK’s London-based MPs either abstained or opposed the third runway in a House of Commons vote in June 2018. However, the plan was ultimately pushed through, with 415 votes in favor and 119 against it.
Extensive legal battles
With plans for the third runway having been voted through in the House of Commons, the project room a significant step closer to reality. Then, in May 2019, the third runway also won support from UK courts, which ruled that the airport could continue its expansion plans despite the aforementioned opposition.
At the time of the court ruling, Heathrow had estimated that its third runway would be fully operational within a decade, by 2028. However, by the end of 2019, its projected completion date was pushed back by around a year after the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority refused to permit a spending increase for the project. More obstacles were soon to follow.
Shortly afterward, in February 2020, the airport hit a significant stumbling block when its expansion was ruled illegal. This came about after the UK’s Court of Appeal deemed that the plans breached legally binding climate goals. However, by the end of the year, the Supreme Court had overturned this ruling, granting the project ultimate approval. Nonetheless, the period between the rulings represented almost a year of lost time.
Coronavirus further delays the project
As if the airport didn’t have enough obstacles to overcome, last year also saw coronavirus hit commercial aviation. The pandemic has severely impacted the airline industry, with several carriers having sadly collapsed as a result. The global health crisis and its restrictions have stifled demand, minimizing revenue opportunities for already struggling carriers.
The coronavirus pandemic has also impacted Heathrow’s expansion plans, even causing its CEO, John Holland-Kaye, to consider the necessity of the project altogether. Indeed, Simple Flying reported last May that he told the UK Transport Select Committee that:
“Whether that [third runway] will be needed, we will have to see how things turn out over the next few years. If we are successful in rebuilding the UK economy, we will need that in 10 to 15 years’ time. If not, then I think we’re all in a different world.”
Mr Holland-Kaye’s estimation of “10 to 15 years” suggests that the early 2030s might be a reasonable time to expect the third runway to open. However, this will be dependent on how well commercial aviation recovers from the present crisis. Of course, the pandemic has, in many ways, fundamentally changed the airline industry as we know it.
Second runway currently redundant
In fact, when it comes to needing multiple runways, Heathrow has scarcely found demand for two-runway operations since the pandemic hit. Beginning last April, the UK’s busiest airport has seen extended periods of single-runway operations.
Good morning, we are currently on westerly single runway operations, landing on and taking off from the northern runway 27R.
— Heathrow Noise (@HeathrowNoise) May 4, 2021
At the once-bustling and congested intercontinental hub, this is one of the clearest visual indicators of the impact of COVID-19 on commercial aviation. Amid the crisis, cargo traffic has grown as airfreight has become increasingly vital in keeping the world moving.
For example, the adaptable Virgin Atlantic succeeded in growing its cargo operations by 50% last year. Of course, the airline has an extensive presence at Heathrow. However, despite the increased cargo traffic, passenger demand has become so minimal that, for now, even the airport’s second runway is currently redundant.
However, leisure travel from the UK is set to re-open later this month. As such, Heathrow will likely be expecting some sort of increase in passenger numbers. Nonetheless, ongoing uncertainty as to which countries will be on the UK’s ‘green list‘ makes the nature of this increase difficult to predict.
In any case, as its CEO underlined, the pandemic has meant that a time when Heathrow will need the third runway remains a long way off. With cautious optimism, we could see it operational by the early to mid-2030s, and indeed, the legal battles on the matter appear to be done and dusted. However, the unpredictability of the industry’s COVID-19 recovery may also mean that we don’t see it open until even later, perhaps if at all.
Are you looking forward to Heathrow getting its third runway? Or would you rather see the additional capacity invested elsewhere in the UK? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.