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Heathrow and Gatwick lead race for airport expansion

Expanding Heathrow and Gatwick are the only options currently shortlisted as viable for increasing UK airport capacity, the government’s Airports Commission reported today.

The interim report from the Commission has not ruled out recommending the creation of an airport in the Thames Estuary – popularly referred to as Boris Island – but said the idea needed further study before the Commission could decide whether to add this option to the shortlist.

A new or extended runway at Heathrow or a new runway at Gatwick are the current options on the list and ideas proposing an expanded Stansted or improved transport links between airports or with the rest of the country have been ruled out.

The Commission, led by economist Sir Howard Davies, isn’t due to make its final recommendations until after the election in 2015.

But the interim report also put forward suggestions of how existing infrastructure can be used more effectively in the short-term including greater cooperation between airports, improved air traffic management and better surface transport links.

The report said: ‘While the potential [Thames Estuary airport options] offered to reduce aviation noise impacts in the South East of England and to support economic development on the eastern side of London was attractive, they presented many challenges and uncertainties.

They would be extremely expensive, with the cost of an Isle of Grain airport (the most viable of those presented) around five times that of the three short-listed options at up to £112bn.

‘They would present major environmental issues, especially around impacts on protected sites. The new surface access infrastructure required would be very substantial, with potential cost, deliverability and environmental challenges of its own.

‘And the overall balance of economic impacts would be uncertain – particularly as an Estuary airport would require the closure of Heathrow for commercial reasons and London City for airspace reasons.’

The Commission now plans to carry out additional analysis of the proposal to build an airport on the Isle of Grain and will decide whether to add the idea to the shortlist before the end of 2014.

Expansion of Stansted were ruled out because the airport’s passenger numbers have fallen in recent years, while all other options were not seen as credible for further development.

Philippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said it was vital for the economy to increase airport capacity but the country’s transport infrastructure needed to be considered as a whole.

‘This shortlist offers some much welcome clarity on the country’s options. In drawing up this shortlist, the Airports Commission has rightly prioritised market demand and cost-effectiveness. Gatwick is now one of the shortlisted options, reflecting the rise in demand for budget airline flights.

‘But while the shortlist addresses the shortfall in aviation capacity, it is also vital that action is taken to ensure that the rest of our transport infrastructure can cope with this projected increase.’

The report recommended taking several measures to better use existing airport capacity, including: 

  • Optimising airspace by increasing airport collaboration, changing flight routes to match modern aircraft’s more accurate navigation systems, and enhancing en-route traffic management;
  • Introducing a package of surface transport improvements including enhancing Gatwick station, improving the London-Stansted rail link and Heathrow rail access from the south, and providing smart ticketing facilities;
  • Creating an Independent Aviation Noise Authority to advise on the noise impacts of aviation and future improvements to airspace operations.

You can read more on the reasons behind the decision here.

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Readers' comments (10)

  • If Stansted's passenger numbers are dropping, surely that means there is spare capacity, available just for the sake of improved ground transport links!

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  • Is it not simple? We need to expand the other airports around the uk. But then when booking a flight there needs not to be extra surcharges. I fly from Gatwick as my first option, and you regularly speak to people who have had to travel from the west country for their flights, what is wromg with expanding Exeter or Bristol or Bornemouth? Its all good and well the airlines wanting to expand existing as all their infrastructure is already on site or close by and this obviously helps with their costs, but can you imagine extra traffic at Heathrow? Really, this is the best option?! I think not, and anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that. I know we are smaller, but does America not have plenty of hub airports?

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  • LHR has had runways removed - put a third one where it was always planned to be. LGW has needed a second runway for decades. Southampton is regarded as in the south-east - now Ford has shut the Transit production it would be relatively straightforward to turn the runway 15 degrees and extend it over the M27. After all, the airport can take a B757 now. Bournemouth is well under utilised and has a long runway. We definitely need a vastly improved infrastructure - especially the rail network in the South.

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  • As ver, totally south east centric, no thought that many of the issues they talk about with regard to business relate to other parts of the country and once visitors have got through the shambles that is Heathrow, they then have to get out of the south east to where work is actually done. Laughable. In any case, without the current massive subsidies, air travel would drop tenfold.

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  • Expanding any existing Airport would always include many compromises, and future expansion of them would become even more problematic.
    A purpose built new Hub (Boris Island or some other new site) would not have these restrictions. How about one in the Severn Estuary (as part of a Tidal Barrage perhaps?), or a new Northern/Midland site? We need a world class Airport to take us forward, not a cobbled together update of old sites, trying to shoehorn facilities in! I'd love to see a Grand Gesture - a true 21st Century project.

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  • As airliners get ever more enormous, the idea of building or extending airports in the middle of housing estates etc. is simply stupidity. For half a century at least we have meandered around the idea of an estuary airport. Surely now is the time to copy Singapore or Tokyo and actually do it. Combining with a tidal generator scheme would make sense, but linking into HS1 and 2 moreso

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  • Ridiculous, preposterous nonsense, and a massive waste of resources.

    The LAST thing Planet Earth needs is more air travel. We should be discussing plans to close down the Airports. Why do these greedy mindless Air Industry PR buffoons have any credibility at all in the media, let alone Government?

    Its as if we have all lost our sense of reality in the rush to burn more Kerosene.

    Lets get on with the business of building Infrastructure that has a good reason for existence and sustainable fundamentals (EROI>1, EF>1 planet).

    Paul, well said, but the real value in an Estuary site is in the potential for a Barrage / Flood prevention / Tidal generation scheme, not the enhanced transport links which may be a profitable little side issue.

    Somewhere, the group-think mindset "Transport is Good" has crept in; that may be true but it does NOT follow that "More transport is better". Why do we need so much transport?

    Is it not conceivable that the yield in human welfare can be enhanced by having Less, not More transport?

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  • with steady growth in population in London and the South East, and already massive aircraft movements around Heathrow, the only sensible - albeit bold - decision is the estuary alternative. There is space, opportunity and with fast rail, good access to London. Clearly some business traffic and some particular leisure traffic would continue at Heathrow, but for bulk, cargo and large numbers, go for the estuary. Do it now!

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  • Another project to boost the SE at the expense of the rest of the country.
    LHR restricted flight times due to being stuck in the w London suburbs.
    GW & Boris Island wrong side of London for everyone else. How many of us have had to endure the misery of driving up to London on our congested motorways with the knowledge & fear that one breakdown/accident can clog it up for hours, so risk missing your flight? How many of us mitigate this by allowing extra journey time or buy a hotel room near to the airport?
    If they are so set on that other bloody stupid white elephant, HS2, why not build up Birmingham International or prehaps a new hub 1/2 way along the line to help justify it?
    At least this way the whole country benifits & it almost looks like a coordinated transport policy!

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  • Change aircraft so they can land on water & land. Use some innovation to change the way things can be done! No airport required!

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