London Airports – What Does The Next 20 Years Look Like?

London’s airports are amongst the busiest in the world, and more capacity is needed. While a third runway at Heathrow may be some time away, there are expansion and improvement programs at most other airports. What can we expect from London in the forthcoming 20 years, both in airport capacity and facilities and in terms of passenger experience?

Heathrow Airport
What’s next for London’s airports? Photo: Heathrow Airport

London Heathrow – a third runway?

The idea to expand Heathrow with a third runway has been the leading option to offer much-needed expansion in the capital for many years. A new northwest runway and extra terminal have been part of a government expansion plan since 2016.

However, this suffered a major setback after plans were ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal in early 2020. However, in December that year, the Supreme Court ruled that it would go ahead. The question remains, when?

London Airports – What Does The Next 20 Years Look Like?
The proposed expansion of Heathrow airport. Photo: Heathrow Airports Limited

With or without a third runway, Heathrow is likely to become busier. While the current downturn may have set things back somewhat, ultimately, growth will return. Pre-pandemic, the airport released plans to add around 25,000 extra flights a year by adopting ‘independent parallel approaches.’

Better connectivity will also be offered at Heathrow, with Crossrail (also known as the Elizabeth Line) due to link the airport to central London, east to Essex, and west to Reading. This project has suffered delays but could be operational in late 2022.

London Gatwick – expansion planned

In 20 years or so, Gatwick will likely have (or be close to having) a second runway – either a new one or a conversion of the current emergency runway.

A 2003 plan for a second runway at Gatwick included options for a new runway south of the current airport perimeter. This could be a longer runway allowing simultaneous use for landings and takeoffs or a shorter runway enabling one to be used for takeoffs and one for landings. A new terminal was also included in these plans to handle the up to 80 % capacity increase.

To date, the government has focussed instead on expansion elsewhere, but with recent developments at Heathrow, perhaps these will return. The second runway plans have been abandoned currently, but land to the south of the airport has been secured.

Gatwick Airport gates
Gatwick Airport could have another runway later in the decade. Photo: Gatwick Airport

The current expansion plan focuses on bringing the airport emergency runway into use for flights. This is currently used as a taxiway and emergency runway, but modifications and widening could allow staggered take-offs and landings, increasing airport capacity by around 50%.

There was a proposed high-speed rail connection for Gatwick Airport, but the government dropped this in 2018. HS4Air would have linked Gatwick to Heathrow and east to Ashford for channel tunnel connections, by the late 2020s.

The planned route of the now dropped HS4Air. Photo: via Wikimedia

London City airport

There are significant renovations and expansions proposed at London City Airport. The airport is currently working on a masterplan for growth, investigating various options for its future. The feedback to the masterplan so far has been fairly evenly split between positive and negative responses. There is yet to be a planning application set out for any firm works to take place.

The airport had already agreed to invest £500 million in expansion; a plan firmed up in 2016. This includes a new terminal, although this part of the project is currently on pause. Out of the funding, the airport has already completed a new taxiway and eight new aircraft stands, removing the need for aircraft to backtrack along the runway and adding vital capacity.

London Airports – What Does The Next 20 Years Look Like?
Proposal for a new terminal at London City airport. Photo: London City Airport

There is also a possibility that London City airport will benefit from Crossrail. It is not on the main route, but there have been proposals to open a station to link to the airport, or to include as part of an extension southeast to Ebbsfleet, giving connections to London Southend airport.

Crossrail London City
Proposed Crossrail connection to include City Airport. This has yet to be approved, but it may be in place in 20 years. Photo: Cnbrb via Wikimedia

London Luton – eyeing the future

London Luton is the fifth busiest airport in the UK. In 2019, it touched on its maximum 18 million passengers a year caapcity, signaling that future growth is likely needed.

As such, Luton Council has produced a Vision for Sustainable Growth 2020-50. Within this plan, the team wants to grow Luton to a capacity of 32 million passengers a year. It says this will be achieved through the addition of a new second terminal to the north of the runway, along with associated infrastructure.

Luton Airport’s private management company, however, has proposed a short-term plan to increase the passenger capacity limit to 19 million.

The impact of COVID on these plans cannot be overstated. The airport is now intending to submit its Development Consent Order to the government for an expanded Luton sometime this year, as opposed to June 2020 which was the originally planned date.

London Stansted airport – more airlines and a new terminal

With Heathrow and Gatwick airports operating close to capacity, Stansted has grown in popularity as a long-haul airport. Originally seen as a low-cost hub, the past few years have seen Emirates, Air India, El Al all start long-haul services.

Air India 777-300ER
Air India flew to STN in 2019. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

There will be an expansion of terminals over the coming years, but plans for a new runway were abandoned in 2010 in favor of Heathrow.

A new arrivals terminal is part of a £600 million expansion plan, which will allow the current terminal to be expanded for departures only. This will be unique amongst London’s airports.  As part of the expansion, the passenger cap was proposed to increase from 28 million to 43 million a year. This was rejected in January 2020, but will no doubt be revisited.

Better use of technology in airports

Of course, infrastructure and capacity will not be the only changes seen at the airports over the next 20 years. Airports around the world are rapidly adding new technology to improve airport operations and experience.

Departure halls are already changing, with the increased use of self-check-in, bag drop and mobile boarding pass facilities. easyJet, for example, has already installed one of the largest self-tag and bag drop facilities globally at Gatwick. Will we even need many check-in facilities in 20 years?

Biometric gates
The use of facilities such as biometric gates will increase. Photo: British Airways

More use of biometric boarding and immigration gates will also lessen wait and human interaction. That’s going to be a high priority in the post-COVID world.

A more personalized airport experience – using data analytics

The terminal experience is likely to shift to be more passenger focussed. Airlines (and airports) are collecting ever more data on passengers, and this will start to be used to personalize the airport experience.

Unisys vice president, and global head of travel, Dheeraj Kohli explained his view in reporting through

“Disney learned long ago about the value of providing entertainment for customers… so too will the next generation of passenger-centric airports. Airports will be even more focussed on the passenger experience and ensuring a constant flow of information to them.”

airport duty free
Shopping at airports is inevitable; it could be better though if tailored right. Photo: T88288 via Wikimedia

Many people today are scared of the collection and usage of data. But used right, there are many opportunities here. A personalized app, for example, could offer shopping suggestions based on preferences, options for entertainment or simply the best route through the airport if time is short.

What do you expect from London airports in the next decade?