London airports expansion

What is London airports expansion?

London is currently served by five main airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City.

Heathrow, located approximately 20 miles (30 km) to the west of central London, is the UK's largest airport covering 1,227 hectares.  It is also the world's busiest international airport, supporting 86 airlines flying to 183 destinations in 90 countries. Heathrow has two runways; Northern 3,902m x 45 m and Southern 3,658m x 45m.

Gatwick, the UK's second largest airport, is located approximately 30 miles (48km) to the south of central London. It is the busiest single-runway airport in the world, supporting around 70 airlines flying to over 200 destinations (more than any other UK airport) in 90 countries. Runway length is 3,316m x 45m.

Stansted, located 35 miles (56km) to the north east of central London, is the fourth busiest airport in the UK and the third busiest in London, supporting 14 airlines flying to over 150 destinations in 31 countries.  A single runway airport, the length of Stansted's runway is 3,048m x 46m.

Luton, the fifth largest passenger airport in the UK, is located approximately 30 miles (48km) to the north of London and supports ten scheduled airlines and four charter carriers flying to over 90 destinations.

London City, the UK's leading business airport, is located in East London and has flights to over 30 destinations in the UK, Europe and the USA, with connections to the rest of the world via major European hubs.

The Department for Transport's latest published demand forecasts indicate that the number of passengers using UK airports will rise from 211 million passengers per annum (mppa) in 2010, to 335 mppa in 2030 and up to 470 mppa by 2050.

London airports have seen continued passenger growth since the end of 2008 and London's three largest airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted) are all expected to be at capacity by 2030. This predicted growth in demand has prompted a national debate on how best to provide more capacity in the future for London and the South East.

One option is for additional runways to be built at existing airports. The Government's current policy is not to support new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, and there are many ongoing campaigns vehemently determined to resist further expansion at any of the airports.

Nevertheless there continues to be considerable support for the proposed third runway at Heathrow.  There have also been renewed calls for a second runway at Stansted from, amongst others, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary.

Gatwick Airport is bound by an agreement not to build a second runway until 2019 and intends to honour that agreement, but in its master plan for growth published in July 2012, chief executive Stewart Wingate acknowledged that in the long term, a second runway at Gatwick may be needed.

Other options to increase airport capacity in London and the South East include expanding facilities at existing airports, such as Manston and Southend, and building a completely new airport.

Several schemes for new airports have been proposed over recent years.

The Isle of Sheppey and the village of Cliffe on the Hoo peninsula have been put forward at various times as possible sites for new airports, but both were eventually rejected in the Department for Transport's 2003 White Paper 'The Future of Air Transport'; as was the proposal for a new Thames Reach Airport also on the Hoo peninsula. However, reports continue to emerge of attempts to revive both the Hoo and the Thames Reach schemes.

The Thames Estuary has been favoured widely as an ideal site for an off-shore airport. Back in the early 1970s, a plan to build a new airport on Maplin Sands by Foulness Island had the support of the Heath government. The scheme was abandoned by the succeeding Labour government in 1974 on grounds of soaring costs and damage to the environment.

The Marinair proposal for an off-shore island airport in the Thames Estuary was developed by the Thames Airport Estuary Company (TEACo) and put forward for consideration in 1990. The scheme, which is still being promoted, proposes the development of a new four runway 'hub and spoke' airport on an artificial island, with surface rail, road and sea access, to provide international and domestic air transport services as part of an integrated national transport system.

TEACo continues to argue that the Marinair proposal "remains the most innovative, flexible in use and arguably the only practical long-term solution to the mounting airport runway crises in the South-East of England."

The Mayor of London has been an enthusiastic supporter of a similar scheme since 2008. Known as 'Boris Island' this also proposes the building of a new hub airport on an artificial island in the Shivering Sands area of the Thames Estuary.

In August 2011, a rival scheme for a Thames Estuary airport was unveiled by architects Foster & Partners and the Halcrow Group. The airport, on the Isle of Grain, would be part of a proposed 'Thames Hub' which includes a £6 billion new barrier crossing, a £20 billion high speed Orbital Rail route and a new £20 billion international estuary airport built partly on reclaimed land and capable of handling 150 million passengers per annum.

According to Lord Foster, the Mayor of London has expressed his support for the Thames Hub vision, as have civil engineer Douglas Oakervee and economist Bridget Rosewell who developed the 'Boris Island' proposal and are now part of the Thames Hub scheme.

So far the Coalition has ruled out a third runway at Heathrow and a new airport in the Thames Estuary as options to increase airport capacity.

However, a consultation on the UK's hub status planned originally for March 2012 and postponed until the summer, was further delayed until autumn 2012.

In addition, the Government announced in September 2012 that an independent inquiry would be set up into maintaining the UK's status as an international aviation hub, to be led by former head of the CBI and FSA Sir Howard Davies. His report is not expected to be published during the current parliament.

All this has led to speculation that, whoever wins the next general election, proposals for a Thames Estuary and plans for additional runways at the main London airports will be back on the agenda post 2015.


In 2003, there were around 120 million journeys through South East airports out of a national total of around 200 million according to official figures, and the pressure on existing capacity at that time was already more severe in the South East than elsewhere in the country.

The Department for Transport noted that at Heathrow, the demand for capacity had "for many years" exceeded supply for all hours of the day and there were also stringent controls on night flights. At Gatwick, demand exceeded supply for much of the day, especially in summer and at Stansted there was no spare capacity in some peak hours, with demand continuing to grow "extremely rapidy."

Only at Luton and to a lesser extent at London City was there significant capacity available in peak hours.

The DfT's 2003 White Paper, 'The Future of Air Transport', which sought to provide a strategic framework for air travel development over the next 30 years, acknowledged that there were particular environmental concerns about expansion at the main London airports.

But the Paper suggested this had to be balanced against the importance of these airports to the South East and to the UK's prosperity, and warned that failure to provide some additional capacity "could have substantial repercussions in the country as a whole, as well as for us individually."

Proposals to build new airports at a number of locations were all rejected as it was considered that "the consequences would be severe and better options are available."  Similarly it was decided that there was "no strong case" for the development of a second international hub airport alongside Heathrow.

Instead, the White Paper concluded that provision should be made for two new runways in the South East by 2030.

The first runway should be at Stansted and delivered as soon as possible – around 2011 or 2012.

A new runway at Heathrow and additional terminal capacity should be delivered as soon as possible after the new runway at Stansted – within the 2015-2020 period – "but only if stringent environmental limits can be met."

Also, in case the conditions for a third runway at Heathrow could not be met, it was recommended that land should be safeguarded at Gatwick for a new wide-spaced runway to be built after 2019, as there was "a strong case on its own merits" for a new runway at Gatwick.

In addition, the White Paper concluded that there was scope for other existing South East airports, including London City, Norwich, Southampton and some smaller airports, to help meet local demand, and their further development was supported in principle, subject to relevant environmental considerations.

A progress report published in 2006 stated that the Government remained committed to the strategy set out in the 2003 White Paper.

The report noted that demand at Stansted had continued to grow, increasing by 18% since 2003 and was expected to increase still further as other airports in the South East faced capacity constraints. BAA, the airport operator, predicted that Stansted would reach its limit of 25 million passengers by early 2008.

BAA expected to submit its planning application for a new runway at Stansted during the second half of 2007.  However, a substantial amount of work remained to be done to prepare for a planning inquiry which would not be expected to start before spring 2008 and unlikely to conclude before 2010.  BAA did not expect a runway to be operational before 2015.

At Heathrow, demand by 2006 was far in excess of runway capacity and over the previous five years passenger growth had been just over 5 per cent compared to 27 per cent at UK airports overall.  Heathrow was also becoming increasingly uncompetitive in relation to other major European airports; although it handled more passengers per year than any other European airport, it had less runway capacity than competing major European hub airports.

The report concluded that Heathrow's route network had become "largely static" and predicted that without additional runway capacity, Heathrow's competitive position would diminish "to the disadvantage of the UK economy and to the advantage of continental hub airports" which were continuing to grow.

The Government, therefore, continued to support the development of a third runway, "but only if we can be confident of meeting the strict environmental conditions set in the White Paper."

A consultation on 'Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport' attracted almost 70,000 responses before it closed in February 2008.

Following the consultation, the Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, announced in January 2009 that, having considered the evidence, he had decided all three conditions on noise, air quality and surface access, had been met and therefore plans to build a third runway and additional terminal at Heathrow should proceed.

The Labour manifesto for the 2010 general election again reiterated support for the third runway subject to environmental conditions, but added that the party "will not allow additional runways to proceed at any other airport in the next Parliament."

The Conservatives in their 2010 manifesto pledged to "stop the third runway" and "block plans for second runways at Stansted and Gatwick." The Liberal Democrats also made a manifesto pledge to "cancel plans for the third runway at Heathrow and any expansion of other airports in the South East."

This continued to be the position of the Coalition government after it came to power in May 2010.  Rather than expansion, the new Government would focus on making the best use of existing capacity.

In June 2010, a new South East Airports taskforce was set up to look at how operations at the main airports could be improved. The group comprised representatives from airlines, airports, passenger groups, business, environmental groups and other industry bodies such as the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the Government had been clear in its opposition to additional runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, so the challenge now was to make better use of existing runway capacity. "Our vision is for better not bigger airports, with new investment targeting improvements in reliability and passenger experience," he said.

The Government announced its intention to create a new framework for aviation in the UK, to replace the previous government's 2003 White Paper, 'The Future of Air Transport', which it said "failed to take sufficient account of climate change and the impact of aviation on local communities."

In March 2011, the Government published a scoping document for consultation on 'Developing a Sustainable Framework for Aviation', which aimed to "define the debate" on a new long-term aviation policy.

A summary of responses to the scoping document was published in July 2012. A number of respondents requested more clarity on the Government's policy position on the expansion of airports and its approach to developing South East airports.

Following on from the scoping document the Government also published a draft 'Aviation Policy Framework' in July 2012. This document will be available for public consultation until the end of October 2012.

A separate consultation on the UK’s international connectivity and hub status planned for March 2012 was postponed until the summer and then further postponed until the autumn of 2012.

Speculation began to increase at this point that the Government was having a change of heart over the third runway at Heathrow and a new Thames Estuary airport.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, in an interview in September 2012, stated: "I'm firmly in the camp of we need more airport capacity in the south-east of England, we need more runway capacity in the south-east of England."

In the September Cabinet reshuffle, Transport Secretary Justine Greening, known to be strongly opposed to a third runway, was moved to become International Development Secretary and Transport minister Theresa Villiers, who also did not support a third runway, was promoted to Northern Ireland Secretary.

When challenged that the Government was reconsidering its opposition to a third runway at Heathrow, the Deputy Prime Minister stated: "it will not happen in this parliament" and the Prime Minister also insisted: "I will not be breaking my manifesto pledge."

However, it was noted that proposals for a third runway could be considered in this parliament, but not implemented before 2015, thus enabling the manifesto pledges to be kept.

The new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, in a written statement, acknowledged that Britain had "failed to keep pace" with its international competitors in addressing long term aviation capacity and connectivity needs.

"Our airports, particularly those in the South East, deliver direct flights to over 360 destinations, including those of greatest economic importance," he said. "London has more flights to more destinations than any other city in Europe. More flights to the important trading centres like New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore."

He added: "The Government is determined to deliver a solution which will continue to provide that connectivity in the short, medium and longer term."

He also confirmed that the Government had asked Sir Howard Davies to chair an independent Commission tasked with identifying and recommending options for maintaining the UK’s status as an international hub for aviation.  This would include examining the scale and timing of any requirement for additional capacity and how any such requirement could be met in the short, medium and long term.

He stated that the Commission would provide an interim report to the Government no later than the end of 2013 and a decision on whether to support any of the recommendations contained in the final report "will be taken by the next Government."


Proposals to increase airport capacity in London and the South East have attracted huge controversy, particularly the plans for a third runway at Heathrow and a new airport in the Thames Estuary.

There are divisions both between and within political parties on the issue.

The Green Party is calling for a reduction in air travel and a halt to all airport expansion, with shorter air journeys transferred to the railways.

The Liberal Democrats are opposed to all airport expansion serving London and the South East and also the London Mayor's proposal for a new airport in the Thames Estuary.

In the Labour and Conservative parties there are MPs both for and against further expansion.

When in power, Labour had supported plans for a third runway at Heathrow. The new leader Ed Miliband decided in October 2011 to change policy and now opposes the move. However, former Chancellor, and former Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, has now come out in favour of a third runway, but is against the Thames Estuary airport proposal.

The Conservative Party's official stance is to oppose a third runway and media reports that the leadership might be wavering on the issue brought a strong response from several MPs, not least Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, who promised to resign if his party changed its policy on the issue. London Mayor, Boris Johnson, said it would be "simply mad" to build a new runway in the middle of west London.

Others in the party are in favour of more expansion at the current airports.  The Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs have said that in order to deliver growth, airport operators should be enabled to build at least one more runway in the South East by 2020.

Business groups are also concerned that decisions on airport capacity ensure the UK remains competitive.

Amongst them, London First, which represents leading employers in the capital, has said that if London is to remain globally competitive, "new runway capacity in London and the South East will be required."

There are ongoing, long standing campaigns against proposed expansions at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted by local residents groups and environmentalists who are particularly concerned about noise and air pollution.

They are also campaigning vigorously against plans to expand smaller airports and against the Thames Estuary proposals.

The new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, admitted that it was "a very difficult debate".

Mr McLoughlin said the Government intended the Independent Commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies to be "part of a process that is fair and open and that takes account of the views of passengers and residents as well as the aviation industry, business, local and devolved government and environmental groups. "

He added that the Government would also like to involve the Opposition in the work to finalise the arrangements for the Commission.


In quarter 1 2012, UK airports handled 44.6 million terminal passengers, a moderate improvement of 2.1% compared with the same quarter last year.

UK terminal passengers are those travellers who board or disembark an aircraft on a commercial flight at a reporting UK airport.

In quarter 1 2012, the number of passengers across all UK airports rose by 2.1% compared to quarter 1 2011. On a rolling year basis, it was 4.4% higher than the year before.

Once again, the London airports saw greater passenger growth than the regional airports, a sequence that began in quarter 4 of 2008.

Passenger flights to and from UK airports:

The figures are for commercial passenger flights and thus exclude flights of aircraft exclusively carrying cargo.

Compared to quarter 1 2011, the number of passenger flights at all UK airports decreased by 1.9% in quarter 1 2012.
The number of scheduled flights was down 1.8% and the number of charter flights was down 3.5%.
On a rolling year basis, there were 1.8% more scheduled flights and 2.5% fewer charter flights across all UK airports.
There were 1.4% fewer flights at London airports and 2.5% fewer flights at regional airports in quarter 1 2012 than in the same period in 2011.
On a rolling year basis, the number of flights grew by 2.9% and 0.1% at London and regional airports respectively.

All commercial flights to and from UK airports:

The number of commercial flights at reporting UK airports is a measure of commercial aviation activity in the UK. It includes both passenger and cargo flights, but excludes military flights, general aviation and aircraft that pass through UK airspace without landing.

In quarter 1 2012, the total number of commercial flights in the UK was down 1.8% compared to the same quarter in 2011.
London airports saw a smaller decrease (1.4%) than regional airports (2.2%). On a rolling year basis, the total number of flights was up 1.7%.
The number of air freighter flights in quarter 1 2012 was up 3.5% on quarter 1 2011, and that of passenger flights dropped

Source: CAA – 2012


"We need to look long-term; we can't be going around this loop every ten, twenty years.  If we have a third runway at Heathrow it's likely to be full within years of opening if not instantly……"

Former Transport Secretary Justine Greening – 2012

"We do need to deal with the fact that there is opposition across communities for particular airport developments, that's perfectly understandable.  I represent a constituency with Manchester airport partially in it; I understand all about the local pressures – but you've got to as a nation be able to overcome those and make a sensible decision about where that extra runway capacity in the South East should go."

Chancellor George Osborne, speaking on the Andrew Marr show – September 2012.

"We have a cross-party consensus that we must cut our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. What does that mean for our aviation emissions? You can’t just have unlimited expansion. The Coalition is rocking like a drunken sailor on this issue of runways and airports. But where is the debate about the environment in this?"

Ed Miliband speaking in an interview for the New Statesman – September 2012