Airports Commission recommends third runway for Heathrow
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The Airports Commission has unanimously recommended that a third runway is built at Heathrow Airport.

The Airports Commission has published its final report, setting out its recommendations to government for expanding aviation capacity in the UK. While all three proposals that it shortlisted are deemed credible, the commissioners unanimously agreed a new northwest runway at Heathrow was clearly the best option.

At £18.6bn capital cost, this is the most expensive option but, with the best return, it is also deemed the best value for money.

Building a new full length (3,500-metre) runway to the north west of the current northern runway at Heathrow will require construction of a new (sixth) terminal, putting part of the M25 into a tunnel, moving a waste energy plant and knocking down 783 homes.

The government, which is divided on the issue, is expected to make some sort of decision around the end of the year.

The Airports Commission’s final report describes the strengths and weaknesses of the other short-listed proposals. The £13.5bn Heathrow Hub extended northern runway option delivers similar economic benefits, is less costly and requires the loss of fewer homes. But it provides a smaller increase in capacity and is less attractive from a noise and air quality perspective.

The £9.3bn Gatwick scheme is feasible, but the additional capacity would be more focused on short-haul intra-European routes and the economic benefits considerably smaller.

The commission said that its recommendation was “a fundamentally different proposition from previous proposals to expand at Heathrow”, thus perhaps providing cover for the government that has previously ruled out expanding Heathrow. It delivers a full-length runway, maximising the connectivity gain, and it is situated further west than the current runways, which will help to reduce the number of people affected by noise.

Any Heathrow expansion faces fierce political opposition. Seeking to address this, the commission says that its proposal is accompanied by strong measures to limit the impacts on those living nearby, including:

  • a ban on all scheduled night flights in the period from 11.30pm to 6.00am, which is only possible with expansion
  • a legally binding ‘noise envelope’ putting firm limits on the level of noise created by the airport
  • a new aviation noise levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities
  • a legal commitment on air quality that new capacity will only be released when it is clear that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed
  • a Community Engagement Board, under an independent chair, with real influence over spending on mitigation and compensation and over the airport’s operations
  • an independent aviation noise authority, with a statutory right to be consulted on flightpaths and other operating procedures at all UK airports
  • provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships for local people, so that nearby communities benefit from the jobs and economic opportunities.

The report also says that the government should make a firm commitment in Parliament not to expand the airport any further – there is no sound operational or environmental case for a fourth runway at Heathrow, it says.

According to the commission, a new northwest runway at Heathrow (illustrated below) will not increase noise above current levels, will generate up to £147bn in GDP impacts over 60 years and more than 70,000 new jobs by 2050. It will add regular daily services from the airport to around 40 new destinations, including 10-12 new long-haul routes.



Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies said: “Over the past two and a half years, the Airports Commission has reviewed the evidence without preconceptions, consulted widely, and followed an inclusive and integrated process. At the end of this extensive work programme our conclusions are clear and unanimous: the best answer is to expand Heathrow’s capacity through a new northwest runway.

“Heathrow is best-placed to provide the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long haul destinations to new markets. It provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy.

“Adding capacity at Heathrow also provides an opportunity to change the airport’s relationship with its local communities as some overseas airports have done. To make expansion possible the commission recommends a comprehensive package of accompanying measures including a ban on night flights and a new noise levy to fund a far stronger and more generous set of compensation and mitigation schemes. And as there is no environmental or operational case for a fourth runway, the government should take action in Parliament to rule it out firmly and finally.

“This is a detailed and comprehensive report, based on a significant volume of technical material, and the government will need to review our analysis carefully. The commission urges it not to prolong this process, however, and to move as quickly as it can to a decision. Further delay will be increasingly costly and will be seen, nationally and internationally, as a sign that the UK is unwilling or unable to take the steps needed to maintain its position as a well-connected, open trading economy in the twenty-first century.”

Heathrow Airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “This debate has never been about a runway, it’s been about the future we want for Britain. Expanding Heathrow will keep Britain as one of the world’s great trading nations, right at the heart of the global economy. Our new plans have been designed around the needs of local communities and will meet carbon, air quality and noise targets, and provides the greatest benefit to the UK’s connectivity and its long term economic growth.

“We will create the world’s best connected, most efficient and most environmentally responsible hub airport at the heart of an integrated transport system. The commission has backed a positive and ambitious vision for Britain.  We will now work with government to deliver it.”

Gatwick Airport CEO Stewart Wingate said: “Gatwick is still very much in the race. The Commission’s report makes clear that expansion at Gatwick is deliverable.

“It is for the commission to make a recommendation but it is of course for the government to decide. So we now enter the most important stage of the process.

“We are confident that when the government makes that decision they will choose Gatwick as the only deliverable option. For instance, this report highlights the very significant environmental challenges at Heathrow such as air quality and noise impact.

“Gatwick will give the country the economic benefits it needs and at the same time impact far less people. It is quicker simpler and quieter. Above all – after decades of delay – it can actually happen.”

CBI director-general John Cridland said: “Now that Sir Howard’s commission has made its recommendation, the government must commit to the decision now, and get diggers in the ground at Heathrow swiftly by 2020… The UK’s economic future cannot be kept waiting on the tarmac any longer. By taking the decision now, the government can send the message, loud and clear, that Britain is open for business.”

The full report can be downloaded at