Aviation expansion

What is aviation expansion?

The aviation industry experienced massive growth in the 1980s and 1990s. The UK was one of the principal beneficiaries of this growth, and today, it has an aviation sector that is second only to that of the USA.

Nearly 200 million people passed through UK airports in 2002, and this is projected to more than double by 2020 and reach 500 million by 2030.

The government published a white paper on The Future of Air Transport in 2003, setting out a 30-year framework for the growth of the aviation industry.

But with environmental concerns about the negative impact of aviation on carbon emissions growing, the tension between maintaining Britain's prominence as an air transport hub and its green credentials has never been stronger.


Economic growth and globalisation have seen demand for air travel grow rapidly in the last 20 years, and all the economic and demographic evidence points to this trend accelerating. At the same time, planning and constructing new infrastructure takes an extremely long time and history has shown the construction of new airports and the expansion of existing ones to be highly controversial.

The expansion of Heathrow Airport provided a landmark case in the history of such projects, following BAA's application for a fifth terminal in 1993.

In the face of massive local opposition to the proposals, a public inquiry was convened in 1995. It was not completed until 1999, and at three years and ten months was the longest planning inquiry in British history. It was finally given the green light by then transport secretary Stephen Byers in November 2001. The Queen finally opened Terminal 5 in March 2008.

A decentralised approach to infrastructure planning has led to distorted provision. The economic dominance of the south-east, and the lower costs of expanding an existing airport over building a new one from scratch, led the bulk of the industry to wish to further expand the London airports – principally Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. Heathrow and Gatwick, moreover, are normally 'full' all year round, and remaining capacity in the south-east is being used up rapidly. All three airports were run by BAA until December 2009 when, following a ruling by the Competition Commission, Gatwick was sold to Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) for £1.15 billion.

In the North and Scotland the debate is slightly different, as these regions are keen to develop their airports and infrastructure. They believe that easier access to Europe's economic hubs would help develop their economies.

In 2003 the government reached the view that a long-term strategic response to the problem of aviation growth was the only answer, and in 2000 launched a series of regional consultation documents, followed in 2003 by the white paper. It included proposals for second runways at Stansted and Birmingham airports, along with runway lengthening at Liverpool John Lennon, Newcastle, Teeside International, Leeds Bradford International and Inverness airports. Expansion of terminal facilities was proposed for a number of other airports.

Anti-expansion campaigners won a landmark high court victory in February 2005 and obtained a judicial review of the plans, but the ensuing judgement did not reverse the trend of overall expansion in the UK.

In 2011, the Coalition government announced plans to improve the performance, environmental impacts and capacity of the UK's transport network, including "maintaining the status of the UK as an international hub for aviation."

However, the Civil Aviation Authority warned the Government that without a credible, long-term Aviation Policy Framework which focuses on consumers, rather than airlines or airports, and allows capacity to develop sustainably, "it is likely that prices will rise, route choice will drop and the UK economy will suffer".

CAA chief executive, Andrew Haines said that additional capacity  "would offer significant benefits for consumers, and for the UK as a whole, so long as it is delivered in an environmentally sustainable way." But he added: "As we haven’t built a single runway in the south east of England capable of handling Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s for over 70 years, the difficulty of increasing capacity is obvious."


Although they create jobs and bring in money to local and national economies, airports also create noise, pollution and transport problems as well as taking up vast tracts of land. As such, proposals for new airports or to expand existing ones invariably generate massive public controversy, and require the balancing of economic against environmental concerns.

The government and the industry regard the economic case as compelling: the white paper puts the contribution of aviation to GDP at £13 billion or two per cent of the annual total. Although the UK is currently in a strong position, it faces serious challenges from other countries. The Heathrow-Gatwick hub's main competitors – Amsterdam's Schipol, Paris' Charles de Gaulle, and Frankfurt Am Main – are all actively developing additional runway capacity, which could deprive London of its pre-eminent position in European aviation, to the massive detriment of the UK economy. Aviation is necessarily an international business, and any slack released by the UK will be picked up by a competitor, it is claimed.

At the same time, the government defends airport expansion in terms of personal choice. If people want to fly, it is argued (and the growth projections suggest they do), they should be able to. On this, and the previous competitive grounds, the government and the industry reject the idea of attempting to limit demand by "pricing people out of flying" as an alternative to increasing supply.

However, airport expansion is at the same time one of the biggest subjects of environmental protest of recent times. Indeed, during the pre-white paper consultation, it became clear that a number of previously favoured proposals, such as the building of new airports at Cliffe in Kent and Rugby in Warwickshire, would not get off the ground.

Aircraft emissions are known to be particularly pollutant. Research published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1999 found that, in 1992, aviation was responsible for 3.5 per cent of the total global contribution to climate change. This figure was expected to rise to between four per cent and 17 per cent by 2050. On the ground, the Department for Transport admits that as many as 35,000 people living near to Heathrow Airport suffer from poor air quality, primarily caused by nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

Studies have also shown aircraft noise, particularly at night, can have damaging health effects on those continually exposed to it. A landmark European court of human rights case in 2003 found that the government was permitted to balance the economic interests of airlines in allowing night flights against the right to sleep of those living near to airports.

Other objections frequently cited against airport expansion include the impact on overstretched ground transport infrastructure, the damaging impact on local house prices, and damage to the local landscape. Specific local issues also impinge upon public feeling: the Cliffe proposal was hampered by its siting on a bird reserve, generating not only concerns about wildlife, but about aircraft safety.

In December 2006, transport secretary Douglas Alexander reaffirmed the government's commitment to airport expansion in a progress report on the white paper. He said the government continued to support new runways at Stansted and Heathrow.

In virtually every area where proposals have been made, local campaign groups have developed (eg Hacan Clearskies at Heathrow, Stop Stansted Expansion at Stansted), alongside the "traditional" environmental lobby. In 2003, a new national group called Airportwatch was launched, explicitly to campaign against airport expansion.

An inquiry into Stansted's expansion began on May 30th 2007, complete with a demonstration by Stop Stansted Expansion. It followed the rejection by Uttlesford district council of BAA's plans to increase annual passenger numbers from 25 million to 35 million and permissible air traffic movements from 241,000 to 264,000.

In October 2008, newly appointed transport secretary Geoff Hoon announced in a written statement to parliament that he had decided to grant permission for the increase in passenger numbers and air traffic movements sought by BAA plc and Stansted Airport Ltd., which will result in 10 million more passengers and 23,000 more flights going through Stansted each year.

The opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 was preceded by a wave of protests. Five demonstrators from Plane Stupid scaled the Palace of Westminster in late February 2008 while a climate camp outside Heathrow in August 2007 won much publicity.

In January 2009, despite fierce opposition from Conservative MPs and environmentalists, the Labour government gave the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow. Campaigners continued their battle against the new runway, securing in March 2010 a High Court ruling for the plans to be re-assessed. But Labour remained adamant that the runway would be built.

However, in May 2010, the new Coalition government announced that, as part of a programme of measures to tackle climate change and promote a low carbon economy, the third runway would now be cancelled and permission also refused for additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted.

Nevertheless, a National Infrastructure Plan published in November 2011 confirmed the Government's commitment to "improving the performance, capacity, connectivity and environmental impacts of the UK's transport network including maintaining the status of the UK as an international hub for aviation."  And in his autumn statement, the Chancellor said the Government would "explore all the options …………. with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow."

One recent controversial option reported to be under consideration is a proposal, backed by the Mayor of London, for a new airport in the Thames Estuary. The Liberal Democrats are said to oppose the 'Boris Island' idea and environmental groups have warned it would be "a disaster for the climate, and, as a result, for people and wildlife in this country and globally."


Aviation is a major UK industry, carrying over 235 million passengers a year and over 2.3 million tonnes of freight.

Source: DfT – 2012

Today, most people in the UK have excellent access to airports, with around 90% of the population living within two hours travel of at least two airports serving international destinations and 70% within one hour of one airport.

The only runway long enough to handle Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s built at a major UK airport since the Second World War is at Manchester. In addition, London City Airport opened in the late 1980s, but with a shorter runway unsuitable for all aircraft types.

Source: CAA – Jan 2012


"There is no clear support for this airport from the British aviation industry. We know this because similar proposals have been considered by previous governments on at least three occasions, and each time they’ve been thrown out.

"Such a scheme would effectively be the death-knell for the Government’s promise to be the greenest ever, and would undermine its ability to show international climate leadership. That’s why we will be opposing it every step of the way."

From a joint letter to the Telegraph opposing plans for a new airport in the Thames Estuary, signed by Christian Aid, Cafod, RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Tearfund, WWF, Greenpeace UK, World Development Movement, Portsmouth Climate Action Network, Airport Watch, Swindon Climate Action Network, Plantlife, Artists Project Earth, UK Youth Climate Coalition, Surfers Against Sewage, Climate Alliance – January 2012

“The challenge facing the Government is to create an aviation policy that stands the test of time – not a policy for five years, but one for thirty years. If the private sector is to have sufficient confidence to deliver additional capacity then it needs to be convinced that government policy is based on robust evidence and is likely to last for at least a generation.” 

Andrew Haines, CAA Chief Executive – January 2012