Living in the UAE, it’s hard to imagine any impediments being placed to the expansion of airline services. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai act as global hubs, providing air transport links to virtually every corner of the globe. Indeed, it’s been estimated that in Dubai alone, the aviation sector accounts for approximately one-third of the emirate’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In London, a string of Conservative governments and business interests has been attempting to add a third runway to Heathrow Airport. Indeed, the plans were first mooted as far back as 1968 and now, five decades on, Europe’s busiest airport is still trying to come to grips on how to expand.
For the record, London is served by the two runways at Heathrow with its five terminals, one runway and two terminals at Gatwick, a runway and terminal at Luton, and a runway and terminal at Stansted. Charter flights also use Eastbourne on the south coast and Southend, on the Thames estuary. There’s also a small single runway and terminal, London City, close to the office complexes at Canary Wharf, although the size of aircraft using this is limited to smaller commuter jets and turboprop aircraft.
Right now, Heathrow is operating at full capacity, with slots — landing and take-off spaces — operating at close to 99 per cent capacity. In other words, given the operating time constraints, noise and air quality environmental regulations, its finite capacity and political sensitivities, Heathrow as it stands now can’t handle any more flights on its two runways. The recent Royal Wedding at neighbouring Windsor, for example, meant that for Prince Harry and his bride to have a picture-perfect afternoon, flights out of Heathrow had to be curtailed and diverted elsewhere over the capital, with a knock-on effect for air passengers.
Over the past decades, various solutions have been offered up to try and solve the vexing issue of expanding Heathrow or finding other alternatives. And when the current UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, he proposed building a purpose-built new airport in the middle of the Thames estuary similar to Hong Kong’s new island airport. Needless to say, that didn’t fly. As the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip that is deeply affected by flight paths, noise and air traffic, he is vehemently opposed to any third runway at Heathrow — perhaps almost as he is opposed to the UK remaining in the European Union.
Plans for a second runway at Gatwick failed, largely in part because the airport on the motorway between London and Brighton is too far out of the city, is awkward to get to and its two terminals are overcrowded. Similarly, Luton is pretty much used for charter or budget airline flights and is regularly voted the UK’s worst airport in consumer surveys, while Stansted is in the middle of nowhere, is served by budget airlines almost exclusively, and has a train link to central London that works. For those who drive there, however, it necessitates weaving a path through the east end — at least an hour and 20 minutes if traffic is good, and it rarely is in London.
Realistically, after five decades of study, reports, investigations, committees, public consultations and input from private and public partnerships, the only realistic way forward for Heathrow is that third runway. Last week, most likely in an attempt to divert the public’s attention from the chronic state of the UK’s railways, rising fares, failed regional franchises, regular strikes and industrial action — combined with a reorganisation of train timetables that has gone disastrously wrong — Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced that senior ministerial colleagues had agreed to finally go ahead with the third runway, with a parliamentary vote on the issue likely before MPs head off on holidays and parliament goes into recess.
Finally, that expansion appears to be closer than at any time since 1968... but there is turbulence ahead despite the years of false starts and delays.
The last time Heathrow was expanded was in 2008 with the opening of Terminal 5, exclusively for the use of British Airways. And that was a fiasco. For weeks, passengers’ bags went missing, security lines were a nightmare, and chaos reigned.
Still a pie in the sky
If British MPs approve the £14 billion (Dh68.7 billion) proposal, work could get underway by 2021 and the first plane could land on the third runway by 2026 — eight years from now in post-Brexit Britain. The parliamentary vote is by no means a certainty, however. The main opposition Labour party may oppose the expansion, joining with a number of ruling Conservative MPs who are also opposed to the expansion. Even then, any delays to the planning process could delay the start date beyond 2022 — and that’s when a new general election is due in the UK, if the minority Conservatives can hold on that long in the face of the Brexit mess. A new government could indeed stop the process of expansion, putting the whole thing back to where the Brits have been for the past 50 years.
The last time Heathrow came this far to growing was in 2009 when the government gave it the green light. Oh, then there was that little thing of a general election months later — when the new government cancelled the plan and put everything back to square one, and not for the first time. Three years later, under pressure from the business lobby and airlines themselves, that same government set up the Airports Commission — an independent body that was to look at the issue. That took three years to recommend the third runway over Gatwick’s expansion — and deep sixing Johnson’s island fantasy — and now three years later after more study, political talks and consultations, there will be a Commons vote.
When it comes to Heathrow, nothing happens even slowly. That 2008 expansion with the opening of Terminal 5? An inquiry sat for four years to deliberate it, then it took another eight years to become a reality.
The reality on the ground is that flight delays should be expected on that 2026 completion. For now, it’s pie in the sky to think otherwise.