Investigation: How much is London’s air capacity already growing? Is expanding Heathrow necessary?

Luton and Stansted airports are expanding. Will Cameron backtrack to grow Heathrow too?

Heathrow plane over house 1

A plane at Heathrow

London currently has five major airports: London Heathrow, London Stansted, London Gatwick, London Luton and London City.

But is there enough capacity? Can there ever be enough capacity? And is it sensible to keep all our airports growing indefinitely?

 

Heathrow vs Gatwick

It is widely reported that Heathrow operates at 98% of its capacity with its two runways (it used to have six runways until 1970, when just the two largest were kept open). Meanwhile, Gatwick is the world’s busiest single runway airport, and in 2013 was running at 85% capacity.

The war is on to see which one of these two the government will support expanding, with the Airports Commission recommending a third runway at Heathrow.

 

Who’s growing?

But London’s other airports are all in the throes of expansion.

Stansted is already growing fast, but according to the airport’s own website, it claims it is able to “double its current throughput to around 40-45 million passengers a year”.

Luton is one of Britain’s largest airports, and is currently on track to grow its capacity by a third by 2026, when it will be able to take 18 million passengers.

London City airport was also in the grip of a huge expansion drive. Earlier this year it got the go-ahead for a £200m expansion that will take its current capacity of 4 million passengers a year, up to six million by 2023. However, this was later stopped by Mayor of London Boris Johnson. The airport is set to take the mayor to a public enquiry next year to fight his intervention.

All this means that significantly more capacity is already on its way, with several million more passengers able to fly in and out of London over the next few years.

 

Environmental impact

Environmentally, this is, by any measure, catastrophic. Each aeroplane is a massively inefficient machine.

According to figures from engine maker Rolls-Royce, a fully laden A380 uses as much power as 3,500 family cars.

High-octane jet fuel, which is burnt tax-free, is highly toxic and produces phenomenal amounts of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as well as cancer-causing toxins such as benzene and formaldehyde.

 

Toxic air deaths: 9,500

Heathrow plane over house 2

Sweet dreams: a plane flies low over houses at Heathrow

Overall, it is estimated that air travel contributes over 5% to global climate change. But for cities like London, the most immediate impact is on air quality.

Airports are very hostile areas for mammals dependent on aerobic respiration.

Nearly 9,500 people die each year due to London’s increasingly toxic air.

 

MPs contribution

The Commons environmental audit committee has now spoken up on the issue, saying that Heathrow must prove that it can expand but remain within legal air pollution limits and introduce a night time ban on flights.

“Expand, but don’t pollute”, they are effectively saying. It’s a ludicrous Catch-22, and the airport has not committed to a ban on night flights.

 

Cameron’s promise

Construction of the new runway will also require a major act of betrayal on David Cameron’s part. In 2009, Cameron ruled out expanding Heathrow saying “no ifs, no buts, no third runway”.

 

Opposition

But not all of Cameron’s party are on board. Most notably, MPs in the area – Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith – oppose the plans.

Speaking to London Loves Business last month, Goldsmith said: “Heathrow expansion would be catastrophic from an air quality point of view and a noise pollution point of view. It would cause unbearable gridlock to west London’s road infrastructure, and it would be bad for competition and do damage to the competing airports, and all that for what? 12 extra international routes, we’re told by the airports commission. It just seems like an awesome price to pay for such small upsides.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Anonymous

    In addition to the pollution caused by aircraft the problem at Heathrow is worsened with terrible traffic congestion with the M4 and M25 frequently grinding to halt. Yet the greedy Heathrow management have stated that no contribution will be made to road improvements even if the new runway is approved!

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