Why there is no need for any new runway
A massive lobbying campaign by the aviation industry, and by Gatwick and Heathrow airports, together with innumerable press articles speculating on potential sites, has created an impression among most members of the public and most politicians that a new runway, perhaps several new runways, are essential and inevitable. Not so.
No need at present
- The London airports system is estimated to be larger than that of any other city in the world – serving more than 140 million passengers in 2010 compared to approximately 103 million passengers at New York airports and 98 million passengers at Tokyo airports.
- We have more runway capacity than Japan – also an island trading nation – which has twice our population and twice our GDP.
- The number of destinations served by UK airports is higher than for any other European country.
- As the Airports Commission have stated: ‘The UK does not face an immediate capacity crisis.’
Demand is not increasing rapidly
- Taking a ten year period to cover the recession and recovery: in 2013 the number of flights at the UK’s airports was only 1 per cent higher than in 2003.
Plenty of spare capacity
- The most recent forecasts are those published by the Airports Commission in January 2014. They show that Stansted will not reach its planning limit of 35 million passengers a year until 2041. Assuming that the limit is raised, Stansted would not reach full capacity (around 45 million) until the late 2040s.
Indeed Stansted is at present consulting on plans to increase the number of passengers per year from 18 million to 40-50 million. easyJet have commented: ‘Over the next few decades there will be demand for new aviation capacity in the South East. easyJet strongly believes that existing aviation capacity in the South East of England must be fully utilised.’
- Birmingham is forecast to be handling around 30 million passengers in 2050, Bristol 12 million, both well below full capacity. Manchester is forecast at 44 million – well below the 60 million capacity of its two runways. Other smaller airports, such as Luton, Southampton or Manston, also have spare capacity.
- No one would wish extra noise and pollution on any of these airports. Nevertheless it makes no economic sense, and no environmental sense, to build a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick while available capacity is underused.
- Allowing ten years for planning and construction, it would appear that a decision does not need to be taken on a new runway until around 2030. Not in the Parliament due to be elected in 2015, nor that elected in 2020, nor in 2025. In fifteen years the pattern of aviation may well have altered out of recognition.
Past forecasts unreliable
- Not much confidence can be put in the Department for Transport forecasts: in 2003 the DfT’s forecast for 2030 was 500 million passengers per annum, and on the basis of that forecast the Government decided that two new runways should be built: one at Stansted to be completed by 2012, followed by one at Heathrow by 2020. The Airports Commission passenger forecast for 2030 has now been almost halved – down to 290 million.
We have been here before!
- In 1968 the Roskill Commission recommended a new four runway airport at Cublington, near Aylesbury. In 1974 construction was about to start on a new four runway airport at Maplin, in the Thames Estuary. A second runway at Gatwick was proposed in 1953, 1970, 1993 and 2002. Indeed in 2002 the Government also consulted on the possibility of a four runway airport at Stansted or a five runway airport at Cliffe in the Thames Estuary.
- In 2000 Manchester opened a new runway, based on a forecast that passenger numbers would increase from around 20 million to 60 million. Yet in 2013 the number was still under 21 million.
All these ambitious schemes were based on over-optimistic forecasts and powerful lobbying by the aviation industry. Yet in each case the need evaporated as a result of the use of larger aircraft.
- If a new runway were to be built at either Heathrow or Gatwick the result would only be to attract airlines from regional airports. Apart from creating even worse traffic jams on the M25, that would make the North-South divide worse.
More passengers per plane
- Many of the forecasts quoted by the aviation industry are misleading because they concentrate on the number of passengers, not on the number of flights. Thus they do not fully reflect the continuing trend towards more passengers per aircraft.
- The average number of passengers per aircraft at UK airports has increased by 2% a year over the past twenty years. If this trend were to continue, it would exactly match the forecast growth rate for air passenger demand to 2030 – indeed it would match it to 2050. So there would be no need for any new runway before 2050.
- There is plenty of scope for achieving more passengers per plane. In 2013 the average number of passengers per flight at Heathrow was 153, and at Gatwick 144. These figures are small (even after taking into account that on average aircraft are about 80 per cent full) compared to the 220 seating capacity of an Airbus 321, or to the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner which can seat up to 290 (or in its new version, 330), to the A350 which when it comes into service is due to carry up to 440 passengers, to the long-serving B 777 which can seat up to 450, let alone the A380 which can seat 500 – 800.
Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign
 Airports Commission. Discussion Paper on Airport Operational Models. May 2013. Paragraph 4.42.
 Airports Commission. Interim Report December 2013. Summary paragraph 19
 Airports Commission. Interim Report December 2013. Paragraph 3.124
 CAA Airport Statistics. Main outputs of UK airports. Air transport movements.
 Airports Commission. Interim Report December 2013. Paragraph 4.24
 Airports Commission. January 2014. These are ‘carbon capped forecasts’, that is they assume that UK aviation CO2 emissions will be kept below 2005 levels by 2050, i.e. below 37.5m tonnes, a target which was accepted by the Government in January 2009, is recommended by the official Climate Change Committee, and is supported by the aviation industry. They are also ‘capacity constrained forecasts’ which means they assume that no new runways are built at Heathrow or Gatwick. The Commission reckoned that to achieve the climate change target might require average short-haul fares to rise over the next thirty five years from £103 to £146, and average long-haul fares from £397 to £602. (Interim Report paragraph 4.34)
 Department for Transport. White Paper: The Future of Air Transport, Dec 2003.
 See note 6.
 CAA Airport Traffic Statistics for 2013 and 1993.
 Heathrow and Gatwick traffic statistics. 2013