The big picture: UK airport expansion in the South East

The debate on UK airport expansion in the South East has been beset by rumour and counter rumour, years of wrangling between opposing plans, and has been at the mercy of shifting political opinions as well as fierce local opposition. But at London City Airport, expansion has been given the green light, so what are the future prospects for delivering capacity in the region?


London City Airport

Airport expansion generates a great deal of feeling across the UK, but particularly in the South East and London, where the question of how to build bigger and better airports without compromising on noise and pollution is yet to find a suitable answer; not that people haven’t been searching for one.

At the time of writing, this thorny debate – mostly summarised as Heathrow vs. Gatwick – has yet to reach a conclusion. But it’s fair to say that people have had enough; they want a decision (one was promised “shortly” in early October by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling), although, whatever happens over the coming weeks, the arguments will not stop.

Aviation in the South East: a growing sector

In July 2015, the Airports Commission set out its recommendations to government for expanding aviation capacity in the UK, concluding that a new northwest runway at Heathrow Airport represents the best option.

Sir Howard Davies, chair of the group, said at the time: “Heathrow is best-placed to provide the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long haul destinations to new markets. It provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy.”

A three-runway Heathrow – built at a cost of around £18.6bn – would provide up to 740,000 flights a year, says the airport, allowing it to compete with rivals Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Gatwick, on the other hand, says it can build a new runway by 2025, but this article is not going to repeat the pros and cons of these competing plans.

"Airports across the South East are starting to feel the strain."

Instead, what is the bigger picture? First, aviation is a growing sector. Passenger numbers are rising and airports across the South East are starting to feel the strain.

Take Stansted as an example. For the twelve months ending September, 24 million passengers used the airport. Heathrow operates at 98% of its capacity, Gatwick is approaching its capacity of 45 million, while London Luton Airport welcomed 12.3 million passengers in 2015, a boost of 16.9% compared to 2014. At London City, 4.3 million came through the door in 2015, an increase of almost two million from 2006.

Speaking at the Westminster Forum Projects:What now for airport expansion in the South East? event held in September, Dr Matthew Niblett, director of the Independent Transport Commission, said: “There’s a central case suggesting that the UK will see 320 million passenger journeys per annum by 2030.

“While some airports such as Manchester and East Midlands are expected to retain plenty of capacity into the middle decades of the century, our major airports around London will soon be struggling to accommodate new services.”

Expansion at London City and others

While London City Airport may not be considered “major” – at least not in terms of numbers – it is moving forward with its own ambitious expansion plan.

The £344m proposal, given the green light in July and overturning previous Mayor of London Boris Johnson's objection, includes an extended terminal, seven new aircraft taxi stands and upgraded public transport links. Airport bosses believe it will create 2,000 new jobs and allow for an additional 32,000 flights by 2025.

“[This] expansion, in the short to medium term, can deliver much-needed capacity within the London airports system while a broader solution is found,” says a London City spokesperson. “This means more flight movements during peak hours, offering more choice and flexibility to passengers.”

The plan has been criticised by the Green Party and other opposition groups, who have claimed it is incompatible with attempts to drive down pollution and improve air quality in London.

Stansted, London’s third-busiest airport, is another that has had to fight to be heard amongst the noise. The Manchester Airports Group (MAG) owned business wants its planning cap raised, which currently imposes a limit of 35 million passengers a year. This could potentially pave the way for improvements to terminal facilities, and last December MAG boss Charlie Cornish said: “The Airports Commission did say Stansted could be an option for a second runway around about 2040. We think it’s probably 15 to 20 years earlier than that.”

And what about Luton Airport? “We are up to our eyes in excavations and steel work,” explains Luton Airport CEO Nick Barton. “We are increasing the physical capacity of the airport, from its previous limit of 12.6m passengers per annum to a new limit of 18 million a year - an investment of over £120m.”

Barton continues that he originally expected to hit 18 million by 2026/27, based on figures from four years ago. However, “the importance of London as a destination has changed for the positive”, he says, and so that forecast has come forward by a number of years.

“That question about demand, is it going to remain? Absolutely. The question is, do we want as a country to meet it? If you drive a car at normal speed, fine. But, if you expect a car to drive at full speed, 24/7, you've got to have something exceptional to keep it going.”

An integrated transport network

Keeping that car running is not just about building larger terminals or more runways, however. What is vitally important is creating an integrated transport network, and this is where the rail network comes in.

“You really can't talk about delivering increased airport capacity in the South East without looking at the need for improvement to associated infrastructure,” says Matthew Heywood, a partner at Osborne Clarke’s construction practice. It is, he believes, “in a sense less about the airport and more about the connectivity to the UK's internal transport network”.

Heathrow executives want to treble the airport’s rail capacity from 18 to 40 trains an hour, which it says will mean 30 million more people travelling via public transport in 2030. At Luton, the bus transfer service is to cease, to be replaced by a 24 hour, £200m light rail link to the nearest railway station.

"London is a very congested airspace."

“One of our great weaknesses is the setup we have,” says Barton. “We have great train services running within a kilometre of our terminal, but no connection. [The rail link] will take you – from terminal to station – eight minutes to get to the platform. That will zoom you between the two.”

These smaller, airport-specific projects are helpful, but more can be done on a national, or regional, scale. “We're doing it with data and the internet, but physically we need to get people moving,” says Heywood.

He says having a broader overview or some sort of body to make sure projects are talking to each other is paramount. “We can't look at the nationally significant transport projects in isolation. We will get more return on HS2, Crossrail and other road and rail enhancements if we can connect those with the people and business coming in through our airports.”

What happens next?

There’s also digital technology, and more and more airports are realising its usefulness. Gatwick recently signed an agreement with a third party for passenger forecasting models, and Heywood thinks new methods to monitor passenger numbers could have “a huge impact”.

“[It’s about] little bits of technology to help the infrastructure work better,” he explains. “And then you get your trains talking to your airports, more trains arriving at peak times, to keep that passenger flow. [This is] where we start looking at smart cities and smart environments.”

Whatever happens regarding the government’s final decision, the question of expansion will continue to be debated.

“We need to tell our story with confidence, but not arrogance,” says Barton. “We need to recognise we've got huge support for Luton, but it is foolhardy and wrong to say we don't affect people. We have to always recognise we do, and try to improve it.

“It's hard, as London is a very congested airspace, but we're motivated and we need to do it.”

The future prospects for delivering capacity in the region require some hard-headed thinking. It will be impossible to convince everyone of the merits of building new runways and terminals, but it’s time for decisive action, one way or the other.