Airport proposals up in the air

Senior reporter

Could we benefit from some more innovative and even outlandish proposals for increasing the UK’s airport capacity?

It’s one of the UK’s biggest political planning questions of this era: what should we do about airport capacity? Assuming we accept airport expansion is both necessary and desirable (both big assumptions in themselves), how to go about it presents an immense challenge with no easy or cheap solutions.

This month, the government’s Airports Commission chaired by economist Sir Howard Davies published the many proposals it has received for tackling the issue. They make for interesting reading, covering ideas that range from the straightforward to the ambitious to those suggestions that appear to teeter on insanity.

There are the obvious and well-known submissions: a third (and fourth) runway at Heathrow, expansion of Stansted and/or Gatwick, an airport in the Thames Estuary. But other sites are also put forward for new or massively expanded airports in Surrey, Essex, Kent, Oxfordshire and South Wales.

And if a “Boris Island” in the Thames can’t be made to work because of its impact on shipping or the environment, what about a similar construction off the White Cliffs of Dover or in the Severn Estuary?

But there are also proposals that take a more lateral approach to airport capacity, arguing that replacing Heathrow with a new hub would be an expensive waste of the infrastructure we already have but that effectively building an entire new airport within the M25 by adding a third runway is an unrealistic prospect because of its impact on local residents.

The alternative put forward by several academics, companies and local authorities is for a dispersed hub combining Heathrow with expansion and spare capacity at Stansted and Gatwick via a new transport system.

One suggestion from Interlinking Transport Solutions Ltd is to build an elevated rapid transit system that encircles London, following existing motorway routes and linking all parts of the capital with its outlying airports (including Luton) and with existing railway stations to enable connections to the rest of the UK.

/l/t/i/TE_London_airports_link.jpg
Interlinking Transport Solutions has proposed a rapid transit system ringing the capital.

In some ways, solutions like this one seem overly complicated compared to the straightforward alternative of building a runway. But one of the major flaws in our existing infrastructure is how disjointed it is. If you fly in to Heathrow you can then catch a train to Paris or Manchester but you need to take two other journeys in between. And trying to connect between London airports is so difficult it’s rarely worth bothering with.

Integrating our air travel system with our rail network, perhaps even with a new high-speed network as suggested by two engineers operating under the company name Quaestus (Poppleton) Ltd, might not only enable airport expansion without the upheaval of ditching or doubling Heathrow but also help encourage more people off our congested roads by making it much easier to travel without a car.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and such a plan comes with huge uncertainties around cost, deployment and disruption to existing services. So what about an even more radical idea?

A firm named Exhaustless has suggested the answer might not lie in increasing airports as we know them but dramatically changing the way they work. It proposes a maglev-based system of electrically powered aircraft launchers that work in a similar way to a roller coaster and that can enable planes to take off more quickly, more quietly and burning far less fuel than is currently possible.

If it sounds slightly wacky then it’s worth remembering that one of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, Airbus, has proposed a similar system. Such a system, Exhaustless claims, could increase the number of takeoffs an airport can handle, using a “guideway” about half the length and one-fifth the width of a traditional runway.

The firm says installing four of these at Heathrow could double current capacity by 2024 at a cost of around £8bn, with further expansion possible. Fuel burn during takeoff and climb would be cut 43 per cent, saving 2 per cent of UK CO2 emissions.

The unfortunate reality is that such a system is too speculative and too risky to be the answer to our current airport issue, even if it is worth investigating as a future solution. If we commit to building a new runway somewhere we know with a relatively high level of certainty when it will be complete and at what cost. The same can’t be said of a theoretical magnetic roller-coaster catapult.

You can download the various submissions to the Airports Commission here: