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Why the Airports Commission ruled out almost everything

A Thames Estuary airport remains on the cards despite having many of the same problems as other proposals that have already been dismissed.

Almost all the options for increasing UK airport capacity with the exception of expanding Heathrow and Gatwick have now been ruled out.

Proposals to expand Luton, Stansted or Birmingham, build new airports at various locations around London, or create an orbital railway or maglev to turn the existing airports into a cross-city hub have all been deemed non-starters by the government’s Airports Commission, which released its interim report yesterday.

Sadly, but probably with good reason, so has the somewhat outlandish idea of creating an electromagnetic catapult system to speed up takeoff.

The only other option still under consideration – although not shortlisted along with new or extended runways at Heathrow or Gatwick – is for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary, specifically on the Isle of Grain, which has been deemed the only suitable site for such a project.

There’s already been much speculation over the politics surrounding the report, with some suggesting the Estuary option has only been left open at the insistence of David Cameron and Boris Johnson – a major proponent of the scheme – in order to keep it on the table until after the election when the final recommendation will be made.

However, an Estuary Airport could still be ruled out as early as next year once the Commission has undertaken a more detailed analysis of one of the Isle of Grain option.

The Commission performed a ‘sifting’ operation on the 52 ideas it received, ruling out the most obviously flawed ones first before gradually narrowing the options down to a final four. The report provides short summaries of each of the rejection reasons.

Dispersed hub option

The idea to use Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted together as a London hub spread over three locations was quickly dismissed as creating market distortions and operational inefficiencies.

Improve ground transport

The possibility of creating a London hub-and-spoke or orbital railway or maglev system to link all the capital’s five airports was also ruled out due to the difficulty of achieving acceptable transfer times and the plan’s inability to create the capacity needed ­­– and at high cost.

A national high-speed rail network to replace the need for domestic flights into London was also seen as costly and would only increase capacity by an equivalent of seven per cent of Heathrow’s current traffic.

London airports

Proposals to expand Luton or Stansted to multi-runway hubs were seen as flawed because expanding one would lead to the closure of the other and of Heathrow, which would either not increase capacity by sufficient amounts or be hugely costly and have a major impact on West London. Expanding Stansted would also have high costs in itself and require improved surface transport.

Regional airports

Several proposals were put forward for expanding other airports and all of them were ruled out. Birmingham was seen as too far away and expansion would rely on short journey times from London using HS2, which would actually make London airports more attractive to Birmingham’s current customers. Similarly, expanding Cardiff would need an extra HS2 link (costly) and wouldn’t deliver significant extra capacity.

New airports

Almost all proposals for new airports were ruled out for a handful of reasons: Maidenhead – too many houses to demolish and flood plain risk; Oxford – less noise disturbance and demolition but increased flood plain risk, too far from London and agricultural land too valuble; Milton Keynes – cheap and with good transport links but would shut Heathrow and Luton and so wouldn’t increase capacity; Foulness (Essex) – ongoing defence requirements; Twyford (Oxfordshire) –too far away without an extra HS2 station.

Severn Estuary

Bold proposals for an artificial island airport in the Severn wouldn’t add capacity where it was needed and wouldn’t add to national capacity as Cardiff and Bristol airports would need to close.

Thames Estuary

Numerous plans for an airport along or in the Thames Estuary were examined and almost all were rejected. Firstly, any locations in the outer estuary were seen as too far away.

A revival of 1970s plans to create an artificial island on Maplin Sands was not possible under current regulations and the site was seen as too close to a current munitions testing area.

Several ideas for an airport on the Isle of Grain were merged into a general proposal and assessed to have many of the negative points of other schemes: high cost, requiring extra surface transport, the necessary closure of Heathrow and environmental concerns.

But the Isle of Grain was seen as potentially having more benefit than any of the other ideas, and so the Commission has decided to take more time to weigh up whether this benefit outweighs the costs and risk.

Electromagnetic catapult

Finally, it was always going to be a long shot and the Commission found the idea of assisted takeoff too risky, slow and costly.

You can read the full details of why the Commission made its decisions in this appendix to the main report.

Readers' comments (11)

  • Where is Birmingham seen as being too far away from ? Is the study really that London centric. The rest of us get really fed up of having to travel to Heathrow, it is the most rediculous place to get to unless you live in London. The only sensible option is to move it away from London and to give the rest of us a chance.

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  • The report says: "Significant distance from the key catchment area of London makes it unlikely that this airport [Birmingham] would cater as well as more proximate options."

  • Why did the commission not consider expanding or using all the other numerous airports and RAF bases in and around London such as Farnborough, Southend, Biggin Hill, Lasham, RAF Odiham, RAF Northolt etc.?

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  • If you take a look at the report you'll see the Commission considered the specific proposals put to it. The general conclusions from the report appear to be that increasing capacity at multiple sites would be inefficient, and that effectively building a new airport hub at the kinds of sites you mention wouldn't be cost effective because of the extra infrastructure that would be needed. Also there would be a consequential need to close other existing London airports, which would ultimately not produce an increase in capacity. The one exception is the Thames Estuary airport, which has been left on the table because its benefits have been deemed so great that they may outweigh the costs. Also RAF bases have, unsurprisingly, commitments to the RAF.

  • The only thing truly ruled out was the UK outside of the Home Counties. As usual.

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  • @Fat cynical engineer: I'm afraid that you aren't cynical so much as unrealistic. People coming to the UK primarily need to visit London for business reasons or want to see the city as tourists. While there are dozens of other places in the UK to visit, the vast volume is for London. The one major knock against Heathrow (other than its capacity) is the difficulty of getting into central London. This will be drastically improved when Crossrail goes live.

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  • I suppose given the priority always given to the South east, those of us who see no infrastructure investment and get a fraction of the pending per head on health and education may end up with the last laugh if a section of the M25 is closed for five years.

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  • Regarding the potential Isle of Grain site, does the existing large LNG regasification plant constitute a potential hazard ...?

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  • Reality bites. Um, no. Not really. If you took the large number that come to visit businesses and places other than London and allowed them to land elsewhere, and allowed those from other parts of the UK that want to fly out of the UK to fly from more local airports, I would be surprised if the existing London capacity were not enough for those who want to stay in the South East and be as insular as you clearly are. On top of that, there might be less pressure for all other transport infrastructure to be London radials, as people wouldn't need to get out of the south east to get to where the real work is done.

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  • Aha ! I think I have it. I said many years ago that London would get a second orbital motorway (remember the original plan was three) before the rest of the country got any significant infrastrucutre spend. So, having decided where in the South East it's best to add more runways, and not condsidering the rest of the country at all, we find it'll close the M25 for five years. So, how long till the new Motorway plan, then ?

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  • Reality bites. You offer a wholly London centric model and accuse others of being unrealistic. Most business in this country is not, you may be amazed to know, in London. The infrastructure spend on radials to London is partly caused by this. If those who do not need to go to London were able to arrive somewhere else, the capacity needed for the pampered South East alone is probably already there, and less spending would be needed on that radial infrastructure. Also, building costs anywhere else will be far lower. It would be more realistic than your view to say that this is merely a continuation of the twenty year plus thrust towards making the rest of the UK some form of extended theme park for those from the South east. I suspect England needs independence (from London) rather more than Scotland does.

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  • I thought the primary purpose is to produce a world class hub that can & will successfully compete with Amsterdam into the future. To achieve this does the solution requires scope for more expansion & flexibility?
    The additional runway at LHR best can only be seen as a short term solution due to the constraints to site area & flying times (23:00 to 06:00) all set by its location in the W.London suburbs which will also force more air traffic over central London with the environmental & safety concerns that raises.
    Add to this the additional load of traffic, both Motorway & rail placed upon London’s already stressed transport infrastructure.
    After all if a component is highly stressed, rather than employ temporary repairs (bodges), is it not more cost effective & efficient to introduce a new design in the long term? One starts to suspect there areother pressures being applied to this decision over and above the national interest
    It is interesting that the government has tried to sell us HS2 extra capacity & shorter journey times as a benefit to Birmingham & the north, yet the commission state the opposite as these features,“ would actually make London airports more attractive to Birmingham’s current customers”?
    It appears ok for business in the rest of the country to lose productivity having to write off up to a day going to LHR, but not for London to spend 1 ½ hrs by train or 2 ½ hrs by road.
    How is it wrong for a solution to be that effective that could unload LHR so much it could be forced to close? Does that prove LHR is inefficient & any extensions, runways etc is just reinforcing a mistake? Also since when did agricultural land become more valuable than Urban??
    Sorry but as London has LHR, Gatwick, Stansted & Luton Airports to play with & still cannot make it work, then the problem is with London it is unfair to make the rest of the country suffer for it.

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