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Airport proposals up in the air

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.


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:

Readers' comments (17)

  • We may not need new airports if Security was quicker, Check in was not 2 hours before the flight and Passport control was manned sufficiently.

    I do not understand how there can be queues at airports. They know exactly how many people will need to be processed at least a week and usually months before and seem unable to get them selves organised.
    Why is it that every time the Monkeys at a Ministry have anything to do they mess it up? I suspect the only Government departments that work efficiently and on time are the pay offices.

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  • I think the solution is to link Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted using a rapid transit system. Personally I don't think rail is quick enough but evacuated tube technology of the like being proposed for the "hyperloop" certainly would be. Moreover the environmental credentials and build costs are said to be far superior.

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  • You are suggesting an airfield in the Severn Estuary? When they have just closed down Filton? One of the longer runways in the UK, right in the crux of the M4 and M5, with a railway connection already running across it, 100 miles close to the USA than Heathrow, with existing hangarage, a highly skilled aviation workforce and a 100 year history in cutting edge aviation technology, and a surrounding population of Pro-Aviation Bristolians already used to aircraft flying overhead?

    Yes, that sounds about right. Joined up thinking? When there is clearly a short-term fortune to be made turning airfields into housing estates? No chance.....

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  • What is with all this expand London, build new roads, train stations and then rail them to Manchester or another northern manufacturing centre?

    Expand Leeds-Bradford, Manchester, Robin-Hood and save them having to catch three trains or hire cars and drive from the south to where they want to go.

    You'd save congestion in the southern airports, and on the roads.
    Increase airport potential overall.
    And make for a lot of happy flyers who don't then have the cost of a train and overnight hotel, just to have the un-privilege of flying from a London airport.

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  • Just another thought; if you have a Maglev-style catapult flinging airliners into the air at twice the rate of a normal take-off, presumably you are going to need some kind of arrested landing system to recover them at the same sort of rate. Otherwise within a couple days or so, every aircraft on the planet will be airborne, all waiting for a landing slot!!


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  • Oh Roberts, you speak for me!

    As we are now over peak oil and further extraction can only become prohibitively expensive anyway, I cannot understand why anybody is even contemplating adding extra capacity for aircraft which at some point will simply not be there. Already this week we have seen Ryanair discipline their most senior Captain for "using too much fuel"; clearly it's a sensitive topic in the boardroom.

    The world's media need to wake up to the fact that there will come a point in time when moving people and freight around the globe by air will no longer be an option; and it is to us as a profession that people will turn for the solution(s). I hope we're all thinking hard?

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  • London Thames Global Airport & Cruise Liner Terminal Thurrock SmartCity, Essex...ticks all the boxes...on time & in budget. ..

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  • Increase air capacity? The opportunity was there at RAF Woodbridge and RAF Bentwaters, two former RAF/USAF air bases in Suffolk that were essentially twinned. Both could provide relatively quick road and rail links to London. The runways would, of course, need to be extended. Guess calling it a ‘London’ airport would stretch credibility, maybe?

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  • The answer is to link Heathrow with another airport which could serve as 3rd and 4th runways using high speed transport links.
    My solution would be to build a Transrapid MAG-LEV system to link Central London with Central Birmingham instead of the proposed HS2 rail link and to include links to Heathrow Airport and Birmingham Airport on the network. Transrapid MAG-LEV trains presently have a maximum speed of 500km/h, 25 minutes for Heathrow Airport to Birmingham Airport direct, however theoretically MAG-LEV trains could travel much faster.

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  • The solution is simple; change the aircraft. We should be able to build superior aircraft that can take off from the water, like down the Thames Estuary. No need for any extra costs at all.

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