London Heathrow Airport Expansion: Is It Still Needed?

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London Heathrow has had more than its fair share of ups and downs in the last year – even without a global health crisis. UK’s busiest airport has been pushing for an expansion with a third runway while facing stiff opposition from climate activists and the community at the same time. With its third-quarter revenue down nearly 60% from 2019 numbers and many industry experts projecting a multi-year-long recovery, should the airport carry on with expansion plans?

London Heathrow
The airport saw a 68.9% drop in passenger traffic in the third quarter compared to 2019 levels. Photo: London Heathrow

Europe’s busiest airport no longer

Up until recently, London Heathrow was known as Europe’s busiest airport. However, due to a global downturn in air travel combined with UK-specific lockdown measures, the British airport doesn’t even crack the top-10 list of busiest airports in Europe. Indeed, its continental rivals Paris Charles De Gaulle and Amsterdam Schiphol have moved up on the list.

The airport stated the following in its latest earnings report:

“…for the first time, Paris Charles de Gaulle has overtaken Heathrow as Europe’s largest airport, with Amsterdam Schiphol and Frankfurt close behind. All three continental rivals have implemented testing regimes.”

London Heathrow
COVID-19 travel restrictions have turned London Heathrow – and most airports worldwide – into ghost towns. Photo: London Heathrow

“COVID-19 is the worst crisis to ever hit the aviation sector and traffic is expected to drop even further now that travel will again be restricted by a second national lockdown. For Heathrow, this means a bigger drop in passenger numbers than the 82% we are already experiencing and consequent losses even greater than the current £5m a day.” -London Heathrow via Evening Standard

Where is expansion now?

At the end of February, literally on the dawn of the pandemic, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that proposals for Heathrow’s third runway were in breach of the nation’s legally binding climate change targets.

This came as a massive blow to airlines looking for more slots at the congested airport. At the time, many airlines were eager to see Heathrow get its new runway for future growth plans. Below is a statement that the airport issued in response to the court ruling:

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Heathrow expansion blocked

Indeed, much has happened since that ruling. However, it looks like Heathrow still wants to continue with plans for a third runway.

In fact, in early October, the airport proceeded with the hearing of its appeal at the Supreme court. Currently, there is no fixed timetable for a court judgment to be issued. However, according to the airport’s Q3 financial report, it currently expects that this will happen in early 2021.

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So is expansion still needed?

Whether or not Heathrow still needs to expand is a difficult question to ask – and one that depends on numerous factors.

If we are looking past the next five or six years, then it’s likely that Heathrow would benefit greatly from an expansion along with a third runway. Of course, within the next two or three years, the airport will have more than enough capacity to satisfy travelers and airlines.

Indeed, even though encouraging news has recently come out regarding vaccine efficacy results, many governments and even some airlines don’t expect a vaccine to have sufficient distribution until this time next year.  

London Heathrow
Most airports are now considered to have far more capacity than is necessary for current travel volumes. Photo: Getty Images

Ultimately, Heathrow’s expansion is a long-term project designed for, well, the long term. With the incredible amount of planning and construction that is necessary, the airport’s plans stretch far past the current crisis. Therefore, assuming the UK and much of the world can go back to ‘normal’ (or what we considered normal in 2019), then Heathrow likely still needs its expansion and will need to continue working on its plan and attaining all necessary approvals throughout the pandemic.

What do you think? Is London Heathrow’s expansion still needed, even after this pandemic? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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