Heathrow’s Third Runway: The Project That Never Got off the Ground

Air to Ground photo of Heathrow Airport.
Overview of Heathrow Airport (Photo: Heathrow Airport)

LONDON – In the UK’s capital, there are few topics that generate such contentious debate as the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

The UK’s current Prime Minister and former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, once famously said that he would: “lie down… in front of those bulldozers…. [to] stop the construction of that third runway.”

Environmentalists argue that expansion is immoral, illegal, and incompatible with UK commitments to reduce its emissions. However, Heathrow, the UK’s only hub airport, has been operating at full capacity for over a decade, and argues that growth will be lost to rival European hubs without expansion.

This article examines the agonising twists and turns of the expansion debate, the environmental concerns over expansion, and whether Heathrow will ever get a third runway.

Heathrow’s airfield legacy

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Heathrow Airport began its life as The Great West Aerodrome. Located outside of London and densely populated urban areas, the airfield was a far cry from its current form.

During the Second World War, the airport underwent a significant expansion, originally designed with military use in mind. But, by the time the transformation was finished, the war was over, and the RAF found itself with more small airports than it needed.

Like many countries across Europe, numerous former British military airfields became private airports, geared towards commercial travel (Kass et, 2011). To begin with, air travel was only affordable to the privileged few; this soon changed.

The rise of the package holiday and cheaper fares from the 1960s onwards, led to an explosion in the number of air travellers across Europe (Crang, 2009). In 1960 there were just over 10 million UK terminal passengers, by 2019 this figure was approaching 300 million (CAA, 2020).

Nowadays, Heathrow alone handles approximately 80 million passengers every year. Unlike in the 1940s, the airport is now surrounded by urbanised and densely populated land. Hounslow, Stanwell and East Bedfont are all located within a mile of the airport’s perimeter.

Photo supplied by Heathrow Airport.

The envelopment of Heathrow by an expanding London has brought the airport’s operations into conflict with resident’s quality of life. Environmental concerns and an increased focus on the aviation sector’s CO² emissions, have caused increased opposition to any further expansion at Heathrow.

How to fix the South East’s air capacity problems?

Successive governments have tried and failed to find a final solution to London’s airport capacity problem. Despite these efforts, the last construction of a full-length runway in the South-East of England was in the 1940’s.

Over the last fifty years, the same three proposals to fix London’s air capacity problem have been proposed time and time again. The first, is the construction of an entirely new airport to the East of London, in or next to the Thames Estuary, the other suggestions are the expansion of either Gatwick or Heathrow Airport.

An island airport in the Thames?

The Commission on the Third London Airport began in 1968, and concluded that Clubington, in Buckinghamshire, should be the home of a new airport that would serve London. However, not everyone agreed; Colin Buchanan, a member of the Commission argued that it would be better if the new airport was constructed in the Thames Estuary.

Photo Credit: ArchDaily

The Maplin Development Act was passed to investigate and prepare the area for its new airport; however, the entire project was later canceled. The idea of a new airport in the Thames would live on though, receiving new life when Boris Johnson announced his support for such a scheme (Johnson, 2016).

In his Landing the Right Airport report, it says that: “A four-runway hub to the east of London, rather than jarring with the growth of London will support it, catalysing regeneration, and housing to the east. It… [would] contribute £92bn to UK GDP in 2050 and support 336,000 jobs nationally. This would be truly transformational for London and the UK.”

Despite repeatedly being touted as a possible alternative to Heathrow expansion, the idea of an airport in the Thames was rejected by the Airports Commission in 2014. The Commission’s chair, Sir Howard Davies, said that:

“There are serious doubts about the delivery and operation of a very large hub airport in the estuary. The economic disruption would be huge and there are environmental hurdles which it may prove impossible.”

The Commission also cited cost concerns, with the total cost of the airport and new transport links into London expected to reach well over £100 billion.

Go with Gatwick?

Gatwick, London’s second airport, has made the case that it could provide the solution to the South East’s capacity problems.

The Airport says that a second runway at Gatwick would increase passenger capacity by 6.5 million passengers per year. Its expansion plan also states that Gatwick expansion is likely to be faster and face less uncertainty than Heathrow (SD3 Engineering Plans).

Photo supplied by Gatwick Airport.

Gatwick already has good transport links into London and is located in a much more sparely populated area; expansion and an increased number of flights would therefore affect fewer people.

However, there are serious doubts over whether Gatwick is the right choice. One concern is that Gatwick is not a hub airport. Despite making considerable gains the Airport accounts for just 11% of the UK’s long-haul flights, compared to Heathrow’s 70% (Airports Commission, 2015).

Critics of Gatwick expansion have argued that a second runway there won’t provide the increased connectivity that a new runway at Heathrow would. In the face of increased opposition to a new runway, Gatwick has decided to try and proceed with plans to convert its emergency runway and taxiway into a fully operational second runway. It’s unclear however, if this proposal will become a reality.

Heathrow Expansion

The final solution that is offered is the expansion of Heathrow. This article has already covered some of the challenges this option faces. The expansion has been backed – or at the least not actively opposed – by three of the UK’s last four Prime Ministers.

Yet, despite government support and multiple commissions supporting Heathrow expansion, the third runway seems no closer to being built. Just how did Heathrow end up in this situation?

Governmental flip-flopping, environmental concerns and legal challenges

Differing opinions over air travel strategy – whether to pursue a hub airport model, or adopt a regional approach – and Heathrow expansion can be traced back to before the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.

Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5C (satellite 2) viewed from airfield, May 2011. David Dyson

However, if we focus only on the last two decades, the stop starts, go around and aborted expansion plans at Heathrow should become clear.

In 2003 the Future of Air Travel white paper backed a third runway at Heathrow. The paper stated that: “Additional capacity at Heathrow would generate the largest direct net economic benefits of any new runway option.”

Even in 2003, when environmental concerns weren’t as prominent as they are today, the paper voiced concerns over noise pollution, impact on neighbouring communities and was worried that NO² emissions would fall short of EU directives (Department for Transport, 2003).

The paper took these concerns into consideration, but concluded that: “within the 2015-2020 timescale, there would be a better prospect of avoiding exceedances”. This would be due to “improved technologies, upgraded air fleets and “tighter standards.”

As we will see, the proposed time frame would never be realised. By 2015 the UK would have a Prime Minister who, at least during opposition and his first term, opposed any Heathrow expansion.

David Cameron firmly opposed the expansion of Heathrow whilst he was in opposition. In 2009, then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, backed expansion of Heathrow, with his Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, announcing that the government would back the “£9 billion” expansion. The plans would’ve seen a third runway running parallel to the existing two runways.

Photo supplied by Heathrow Airport.

After the 2010 general election David Cameron became Prime Minister, leading a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. In line with Cameron’s opposition to Heathrow expansion, and the Liberal Democrat’s opposition, the coalition blocked a third runway at Heathrow. The 2010 Coalition also ruled out any expansion at Gatwick or Stansted.

However, just two years later David Cameron would set up the Airports Commission to investigate the matter and advise the government on its aviation strategy.

Reporting in 2015, the commission unanimously concluded that: “the proposal for a new Northwest Runway at Heathrow Airport, in combination with the significant package of measure to address its environmental and community impacts… presents the strongest case” (Airports Commission, 2015).

The EU referendum and its shock result meant that there was little attention or time given to the issue of Heathrow in Cameron’s final year as Prime Minister. It would be his successor, Theresa May, who would take forward the Airports Commission’s recommendations.

Theresa May’s Government backed Heathrow expansion, despite her past opposition to a third runway. A vote on the issue was brought forward to the House of Commons in 2018. The proposal, which had cross-party support, passed comfortably with 415 votes to 119. The then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was subjected to widespread ridicule, after it appeared, he had flown to Afghanistan for talks to avoid having to vote against the government (The Independent, 2018).

Photo supplied by Heathrow Airport.

However, much like Cameron and May, Johnson did not shut the door on Heathrow expansion. It was a legal challenge brought forward by environmental campaigners which would prove to be Heathrow’s next hurdle.

In February 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that current plans for Heathrow expansion were illegal, because the government had not considered its legal commitments under the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement (Carrington, 2020). The government said that it would not appeal the ruling, with Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, saying that any next steps would have to be “industry led”.

Industry certainly did take the next steps. Heathrow Ltd challenged the ruling, taking the case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK. In December of 2020 the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal, ruling that expansion at Heathrow was legal.

The ruling was a disappointment to environmental campaigners, who had hoped that a ruling that expansion was illegal – on the grounds of climate change – would’ve been a UK and a global first, setting a new legal precedent.

Responding to the ruling, Heathrow Ltd stated that “Demand of [for] aviation will recover from COVID-19”, and that the building of a third runway would “create hundreds of thousands of jobs” across the UK.

What will happen now?

Heathrow, T2A, airside, passenger silhouetted, Air Canada aircraft taxiing in background, May 2019. Photo supplied by Heathrow Airport.

Whilst you might think that the Supreme Court’s ruling would end the decades of stop starting that has characterized the third runway at Heathrow, that’s not quite the case.

Campaigners have very legitimate concerns over the environmental impacts that Heathrow expansion would bring. There are residents who welcome expansion and the economic benefits that would accompany future growth. But there are plenty of other residents, not least in the villages that would be demolished to make way for the new runway, that will vehemently oppose the scheme.

Environmentalists, who believe that the project is incompatible with the UK’s legally binding carbon reduction commitments, will almost certainly continue to seek legal injunctions. It’s expected that these groups could take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.

Even without legal challenges, Heathrow expansion still faces a difficult process if it wants to land its third runway. Heathrow Ltd will have to overcome the hurdles of submitting a planning application and emerging successfully from a public inquiry.

If all of these steps were successfully completed, the expansion would still have to receive the final green light from government. However, allowing the construction of a third runway would be a difficult political decision for Prime Minister Johnson for two main reasons.

Heathrow, T2A, airside, departures lounge, May 2019. Photo supplied by Heathrow Airport.

Firstly, as we mentioned earlier, Boris Johnson has previously gone to great lengths to evade having to vote on any Heathrow expansion. Not only this, but he would have to approve the building of the same runway, that he once said he would lay in front of bulldozers to stop the construction of.

The second reason is that ‘climate diplomacy’ is becoming an important element of the UK’s foreign policy. Later this year the UK will host the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow. The government is already facing multiple allegations that it’s not taking its climate commitments seriously, for example over the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria (Harrabin, 2021). It would therefore be politically risky for the government to approve the expansion of a major carbon contributing airport, especially so soon before or after an international climate conference.

Future technologies such as SAFs (sustainable aviation fuel), electric hybrids and possibly even hydrogen powered planes would all make Heathrow expansion a less controversial topic. However, realistically these advances are all either a decade, or multiple decades away from mainstream use.

With concerns over climate change likely to increase, and ever stricter legally binding emission targets on the horizon, it’s possible that the only expansion occurring will be the continued disagreements over the third runway saga.


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