Survey: will Heathrow’s third runway be worth the cost?

Joe Baker 3 April 2020 (Last Updated September 21st, 2020 15:40)

A survey held on Airport Technology last month found that most respondents believe Heathrow’s recently suspended third runway project would be worth the cost of expansion.

Survey: will Heathrow’s third runway be worth the cost?
Heathrow Airport. Image: David Dyson / Heathrow

A survey held on Airport Technology last month found that most respondents believe Heathrow’s recently suspended third runway project would be worth the cost of expansion.

Of the 3,011 respondents to the survey, 1,473 (49%) said that the airport expansion would still be worth the financial and environmental costs, 1,132 (38%) said the expansion would not be worth it, and 406 (13%) were uncertain.

The £14bn runway expansion project was initially approved by UK MPs in 2018 on the basis that it would increase airport capacity and bring an estimated £61bn in benefits to the UK economy.

However, the expansion garnered opposition from environmental organisations, local communities and the Mayor of London on the basis that it would cause environmental damages and potentially drain taxpayer funds.

Heathrow expansion ruled ‘illegal’

Back in February, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that plans for third runway project were illegal, as ministers had not appropriately taken into account government commitments to reduce the country’s environmental impact – most notably the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature rise this century to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Following the ruling, Friends of the Earth head of legal Will Rundle said: “This judgment has exciting wider implications for keeping climate change at the heart of all planning decisions. It’s time for developers and public authorities to be held to account when it comes to the climate impact of their damaging developments.”

Heathrow responded to say that the Court of Appeal had cited an ‘eminently fixable’ environmental issue and that it was ‘confident’ that if a subsequent appeal was made to the Supreme Court on this issue it would be successful.

Coronavirus outbreak could cause further delays

However, the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and the recession expected to follow could be a major setback to the industry and could further hinder Heathrow’s plans for expansion.

According to the Telegraph, the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BAR UK) – an aviation trade organisation – said that the Heathrow expansion is now in ‘the deep freeze’ until the government publicly revised its policy. BAR UK also told airlines that the expansion could result in additional job cuts and could now be delayed to 2030 or beyond.

With the coronavirus outbreak causing an industry-wide scale-back of flights, Heathrow Airport has revealed its plans to use extra space in its schedule to increase imports of cargo for food and medical supplies. In late March it revealed that 41% of the UK’s pharmaceutical products, including medicines, respirators and vaccines, were being imported via the airport.

“For the first time in a decade, our airport has additional capacity in its schedule, capacity which we’ve begun to see used to help push vital supplies across the globe to help support frontline teams in the battle against this pandemic,” said Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye.

Heathrow also said that despite the implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, £3.2bn was still available to Heathrow Ltd and the company’s management was continuing to pursue reductions in airport costs.

“Prudent management and investment in the airport over the past decade put Heathrow in a strong financial position,” said Heathrow chief financial officer Javier Echave in a press statement. “We’ve taken steps to reduce our cost base and reorganise our operation which will help us keep Britain’s hub airport operating and protect vital supply lines throughout this crisis. We will continue working to restore our strong rating as soon as possible.”

In an email sent to Business Traveller, Heathrow said it would move its operations to a single runway from Monday 6 April, in order to “increase resilience and safety for colleagues, passengers and cargo”.