Heathrow and Gatwick lead race for airport expansion

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Airports Commission interim report 2013 - .PDF file.

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.