The Economist had an excellent special report in the March 30th issue on the debate over how (or whether) to expand London’s Heathrow airport to accommodate growing demand from passengers and carriers. As things are now — and have been for some time — competition for landing spots at Heathrow is intense and can be of significant strategic value.
Consider the former partnership between Continental Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Before the United-Continental merger, this partnership gave Continental better access to the London market via Virgin Atlantic. However, United Airlines already had a significant presence at Heathrow thanks to landing slots it acquired during the demise of Pan Am. Once the merger was complete, the new entity terminated what became a redundant relationship with Virgin Atlantic.
Similar stories highlight more directly these landing slots’ value: British Airways was forced to sell some of its landing slots to Virgin Atlantic as a consequence of purchasing bmi (in order to mitigate its potential monopoly), and Virgin Atlantic’s landing slots were seen as particularly important in the decision by Delta to purchase a 49% stake held by Singapore Airlines.
I’m not going to try to compete with The Economist at providing a clear, concise, and critical analysis of the situation. That sounds like a guaranteed failure. So I’ll just summarize the key points and encourage you to read the special report for yourself. There’s also a condensed summary in the front section.
Heathrow, as well as the nearby airports of Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, and London City, will be at capacity by 2030. Already, the two runways are congested enough that weather issues can cause significant delays and cancellations. Because of time for environmental reviews, design, and construction, a solution needs to be found soon.
A proposed third runway, approved by the former Labour government, has been scrapped by the current Conservative-led coalition. Noise is already a significant issue, and the third runway would increase the affected area even if new technology and mitigation efforts kept total noise at or below current levels.
Suggestions to expand the other four London-area airports have been resisted. Heathrow is a major hub, and attempting to split traffic between it and Gatwick, could increase transfer times (e.g., if you had to arrive from an international flight at Heathrow and depart on a domestic flight from Gatwick). Besides, most other airports do not have infrastructure and transit links comparable to those at Heathrow.
Another suggestion is to build an entirely new airport in the Thames estuary, a lightly populated area east of London. This would be a massive expense and disrupt existing businesses that have grown up around Heathrow, with over 100,000 jobs. The Economist makes a smart argument that if the purpose of airport expansion is to encourage business growth, then forcing them to move across town is not a solution.
The final suggestion, and the one The Economist lends the most support, is to expand Heathrow to the west by building four new runways adjacent to the existing ones. This would be less expensive than building a new airport, and it would shift air traffic into an area less populated than that which would have been affected by the earlier proposal to build a third runway to the north. Never mind that one reason why it’s less populated is the area includes Windsor Castle.
I’d heard about the issues with expanding Heathrow before, but this article has done the best job to-date bringing together different elements of a sprawling story with competing business interests, government politics, and even the royal family. However it works out, I hope they manage to get the thing built on time, unlike the almost comical issues that have plagued construction of Berlin’s new Brandenburg airport — they can’t even figure out how to turn off the lights!