The background

All options for the expansion of airport capacity are back on the table, according to the man charged with making the big decisions.

Sir Howard Davies will look at all the proposals, from politically toxic plan to build a third runway at Heathrow to the almost equally controversial calls for a new hub airport in the Thames estuary.

But he won’t report back until 2015, a delay criticised today by Boris Johnson.

The Mayor of London is categorically against another runway at Heathrow but is convinced we need more capacity quickly.

Building another strip at Heathrow could take as long as putting up a whole new airport east of London, he claimed.

The Liberal Democrats are also implacably opposed to expanding Heathrow but unlike Boris, Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert remains unconvinced by the need for any new runways at all.

“You’re looking at a (third) runway in 2026. That’s the timescale that we’re looking at – realistically, probably about 2028.”
Boris Johnson, 02 October 2012

While many would assume that a new runway would be a much quicker measure than a whole new hub, Boris and other interested parties beg to differ.

The suggestion that the timescale for both would be broadly similar first emerged earlier this year, and were based on a report written for Foster + Partners, the architects who came up with the plan to build a four-runway airport on the Isle of Grain in Kent.

Law firm Bircham Dyson Bell estimated that the Thames Hub could be completed by 2026, although the architects who commissioned the estimate were more cautious, envisaging a completion date of 2028.

Those estimates are almost certainly wrong now thanks to the 2015 deadline given to the Davies review, and it seems reasonable to assume that the schedule will slip by two years.

So, perhaps, a brand new airport by 2028-30.

The law firm made the point that getting planning permission for Heathrow runway three could take just as long as for the Thames hub – about seven years.

That seems like an age, but after Labour initially approved a third runway back in 2009, Heathrow owner BAA said it would take up to ten years to get the thing built, including the lengthy planning stages and the building work.

Assuming a start date of 2015, that gives us a completion date of around 2025 for runway three, so Boris is in the right ballpark if these estimates hold any water now.

He might be exaggerating a bit but the “facts” of this are all so vague that we’d be reluctant to give him a “fiction” rating.

“Because there is space at almost every single airport in the country, we can actually have a 60 per cent increase in passenger numbers…without building any new runways or any new airports.”
Dr Julian Huppert, 02 October 2012

Dr Hupper’s office told us the 60 per cent figure comes from the Committee on Climate Change’s 2009 report on aviation.

The report does show quite a bit of slack in the system outside Heathrow, when we compare the number of take-offs and landings at each airport (Actual Transport Movements or ATMs) with the maximum number allowed.

These figures come from 2005, but as far as we can see after a ring-round of the UK’s busiest airports, there is still significant spare capacity around the country.

Birmingham and Manchester both told us they are running at about 60 per cent capacity, compared to Heathrow, which is still pretty much stretched to the limit at 99.2 per cent.

But the other major London airports appear to have more slack in the system than they did in 2005.

Gatwick told us they handled about 78 per cent of the maximum number of flights allowed last year, compared to 95 per cent in 2005, while at Stansted capacity has fallen from 75 per cent to about 50 per cent.

It’s difficult to put a figure on the total percentage of spare capacity across the UK now, and how that would translate to increased passenger numbers, if we could magically redistribute demand from Heathrow to other airports.

But of course we can’t do that, as the committee on climate change acknowledged when they said: “Demand cannot be easily switched between different geographical locations, and there is a tendency for demand to concentrate at major hubs, given the advantages of inter-connection between different routes.

“Optimal capacity plans at specific airports therefore need to reflect factors other than total national demand levels.”

Long-term forecasts are inherently unreliable but for what it’s worth, the latest projections from the Department for Transport are that passenger numbers will more than double between 2010 and 2050, rising from 211 million people to 470 million.

So the theoretical increase of 60 per cent Mr Huppert refers to wouldn’t be enough to meet demand in the long term.

Government analysts think the three biggest London airports will be operating at maximum capacity from 2030 and any new growth that comes from higher passenger numbers will come from regional airports beyond 2040.

Mr Johnson’s point is of course that this scenario represents untapped potential for economic growth, with demand growing faster than capacity.

He contrasted that with the situation in China, where the planning authorities, he said, are going to build 52 new runways in the next nine years.

If anything, that could be an underestimate.

In June, Li Jiaxiang, head of China’s Civil Aviation Administration, told airline industry chiefs: “China plans to build 70 new airports in the next few years and to expand 100 existing airports.”

For people more worried about the environmental impact than the economics, research last month from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicted 10 more early deaths a year from the effects of pollution across the UK following the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, and more than 20 fewer deaths with a Thames Hub.

The position of the new airport was the key, as a Thames hub would be downwind of London, whereas pollution from Heathrow is blown across the capital by prevailing winds.

By Patrick Worrall