The Pros and Cons of Heathrow Expansion

Charlie Mayes DAV Management

Charlie-MayesThe debate continues on whether Heathrow should be expanded and a third runway built, or whether Heathrow could shrink to a single runway with the proceeds from redeveloping the site used to partly fund a new £50bn hub to the east of London.

The recent ‘big freeze’ in the UK certainly highlighted the capacity problems of Heathrow airport. Currently operating at 98 per cent capacity, it had no room in its flight schedules to accommodate any delays caused by the adverse weather conditions. As a result hundreds of flights were cancelled, although disruption was significantly less than in previous years.

The shortage of capacity at Heathrow is said to be costing the UK £14 bn a year in lost trade according to a recent report commissioned by the airport. That figure could rise to £26 bn a year by 2030 if the problem is not resolved. Based on these figures one could therefore assume that expansion will ensure that businesses in the South East region, and ultimately the UK, continue to thrive and that inaction will jeopardise economic growth.

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I certainly believe that if the UK is to increase inward investment it needs to demonstrate leadership in transportation infrastructure. That includes the ability to serve new and growing global markets. The Thames Valley is a major growth region and has a positive impact on UK GDP, making it one of the three top performing economies in the UK. According to the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership 75 percent of businesses in the region state that the proximity to Heathrow is a primary reason for their choice of location.

Other European destinations have already surpassed the UK in terms of the number of flights that their airports can cater for. Take Germany for example, it is already on track with its airport expansion with Frankfurt now serving more destinations than Heathrow. With £19.5 bn worth of exports in London and the South East dependant on air travel, the UK cannot afford to lose market share.

The original Heathrow expansion plan was extremely well supported by businesses, the aviation industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and the then Labour government. The project was subsequently heavily opposed by the coalition government when it came into power, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson as well as by many environmental and local advocacy groups as well as a number of prominent individuals. As a result, the expansion project was cancelled in 2010.

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Today, Heathrow bosses are still keen to see a third runway built and although the government has ruled it out for the time being, it has asked a commission headed by Sir Howard Davies to advise on future UK airport capacity needs. The Davies Commission is expected to present an interim report to the government by the end of 2013, with a full report due in the summer of 2015 – after the next general election.

From my perspective, having worked on multiple projects in the aviation industry over the years, whether Heathrow is expanded or a new airport is built in East London, both will be enormous undertakings; although I do agree that we need to expand UK airport capacity. These are complex infrastructure programmes with huge implications for residents, the environment, surrounding road and rail networks and the overall economy. Analysing this from a project management viewpoint, it will be difficult to expand Heathrow as the airport is already located in a very built up area. And whilst it might be good for business, it won’t necessarily be good for local residents. I imagine that there will be continued fervent opposition especially from those in the surrounding areas who would be affected by the noise. I also know that there will be all sorts of issues maintaining ‘business as usual’ for the airport whilst any building is underway. The aviation industry is highly competitive and Heathrow certainly cannot afford any disruption or downtime to its services; although the airport has had a good track record in minimising disruption whilst expanding and upgrading its terminal infrastructure in recent years.

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In the end, Sir Howard Davies might not actually recommend it when he reports back in 2015. And, even if he does, the next government will have to back it. If it clears all these hurdles, Heathrow’s owners say it will then take at least eight years to get planning permission and finally build the runway. That said a brand new airport will take 30 years to build. Given the impact this is likely to have on our global economic standing, it seems to me that we can’t afford to wait too long for a decision on a clear way forward.

Clearly, this is not a debate that we are going to solve overnight. We should certainly however look at the infrastructure of all existing airports in the UK, which I hope the Davies Commission will review. We should also look at successful airport new build and expansion projects elsewhere in the world; for instance Hong Kong International airport, as I think we can learn a lot from how Hong Kong approached rebuilding on land reclaimed from the harbour.

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I for one will be very interested to see Sir Howard Davies recommendations when the report is finally published. In the meantime the debate is certain to rage on from all quarters.



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