UK airports: The capacity challenge

31 Oct 2019 by Jenni Reid
Gatwick with two terminals

Aviation can be an unpredictable business. More than ten years have passed since the government approved plans to build a third runway at London Heathrow, for example, and while the project has since been given parliamentary assent, it is still not certain that it will ever be completed.

What is in no doubt is that the number of people passing through airports will continue to increase. The Department for Transport has said it expects annual passenger numbers to rise to 435 million by 2050, up from 284 million in 2018. Still, that growth may prove to be slower than previously thought; a recent UBS report showed that one in five travellers in the US and Europe was reducing the number of journeys they took owing to “flight shame” over their environmental impact.

There’s barely an airport in the UK that isn’t targeting higher traffic and expanding to do so. We round up ten that are planning to grow over the coming years.


Cost: £1.1 billion, Estimated completion: Mid-2020s

While debate over Heathrow’s third runway rumbles on, Gatwick has begun preparing a planning application to bring its standby runway into regular use. It would see the maintenance and emergency runway – which runs parallel to the main one – move marginally further north to comply with international safety requirements. The airport says it would only be used for “smaller departing aircraft”, and could potentially be brought into use by the mid-2020s.

Earlier this year the airport announced numerous other upgrades that will cost more than £1 billion in total, including a western extension to Pier 6, which it says will allow half a million more North Terminal passengers to embark and disembark via a jetty-served stand, and improved gate waiting areas. It is also investing in self-service bag-drop facilities, expanding departure lounges in both terminals and adding a new taxiway.


Cost: £1 billion, Estimated completion: Phase 1 in 2020, Phase 2 in 2024 

The north of England’s hub flies to 210 destinations (versus Heathrow’s 203) and has connecting flights to 16 domestic airports and four in Ireland. It is currently edging towards the 30 million annual passenger mark for the first time, and its runways have the capacity to handle 55 million passengers a year.

Yet many parts of its three terminals look dated, particularly Terminal 1, which has seen few significant upgrades since opening in the 1960s. Manchester’s potential for growth is also constrained by its airfield, which is not fully optimised and can lead to bottlenecks.

It seeks to change all of this with an expansion project that will see Terminal 2 grow by 150 per cent and that will add three new piers, the first of which is already open. T2’s new entrance, border control and departure and arrival halls are set to open next summer, as well as a new forecourt, road and car park. At that point, the existing parts of the terminal will be closed for refurbishment until 2024, after which T1 will be demolished. The expansion should offer passengers numerous new retail, dining and lounge options, including a Virgin Clubhouse that is set to open next spring. Terminal 3 will also get a refresh, and improvements to airfield infrastructure will be carried out.

As we went to press, the airport was set to open a private terminal called Premiair, which promises a “private jet experience” for both arrivals and departures.

Manchester Airport new departure hall rendering


Cost: TBC, Estimated completion: TBC

Luton will submit a proposal next year to build a second terminal north of its runway in the mid-2020s, aiming to boost annual capacity from 18 million to 32 million. Last year it unveiled the results of a three-year, £160 million expansion that increased capacity by 50 per cent, and included new shops, a boarding pier, and more gates. It has opened a new dual carriageway, bus interchange and multistorey car park.

Work has also begun on a £225 million shuttle that will allow passengers to travel from Luton Airport Parkway station to the terminal via a four-minute train rather than a bus. It is targeting an autumn 2021 opening.


Cost: TBC, Estimated completion: 2035

Newcastle has released a “Masterplan 2035” to coincide with its 100th anniversary in that year. It foresees passenger numbers growing from 5.4 million in 2017 to 9.4 million by 2035. The main focus will be on terminal expansions, renovations, and improving access, as well as a potential runway extension, for which 700 sqm of land has been safeguarded. In December last year, the airport announced a multimillion-pound plan to upgrade its car parking, including a new meet and greet area that opened earlier this year.

London City 

Cost: £500 million, Expected completion: 2022

London City, the capital’s most central airport, expects annual passenger demand to rise to 11 million by 2035. However, it is currently limited to carrying 6.5 million people a year. It would like to increase its annual flight limit of 111,000, which it expects to hit in 2022, to 151,000, although it would need council approval to do so.

Chief executive Robert Sinclair says that the airport neither plans to build a new runway nor extend the length of its current runway. But it does want to relax a restriction that sees it close between 12.30pm on Saturdays and 12.30pm on Sundays, as well as its eight-hour overnight curfew. In the meantime, the airport has started a £500 million project that will see it receive eight new aircraft stands, as well as a parallel taxiway next to the runway to improve efficiency. Its 17,000 sqm terminal is also being extended to the east and west by 51,000 sqm, and the existing space is being refurbished. Passengers should see the changes in 2022.

London City new interior


Cost: £500 million, Estimated completion: 2030, subject to approval 

Birmingham wants to increase its annual passenger numbers to 18 million by 2033, up from 13 million. Eventually the airport says its runway could handle 25 to 30 million. To get there, it will spend £500 million (subject to approval) to expand the departures lounge in the North Terminal by 40 per cent and add a mezzanine, as well as 11 aircraft stands and improved road access.


Cost: £600 million, Estimated completion: 2020

Stansted is in negotiations with the local council to increase its annual passenger limit from 35 million to 43 million. So far its £600 million expansion project has seen it add eight aircraft stands and 28 “high-tech” check-in desks, while it is also working on taxiway improvements, lounge updates and a renovation of its departures hall.

The most noticeable change will be a £150 million arrivals terminal, scheduled to open next year. It will offer larger immigration and baggage reclaim areas, new retail outlets and improved access for onward transport. It will also make Stansted the only UK airport with separate buildings for departures and arrivals.


Cost: £150 million, Estimated completion: Mid-2020s, subject to approval 

Like many airport expansion plans, Bristol’s is hotly contested among the local community and yet to receive approval. The airport argues that growth is necessary to boost jobs and regional connectivity and to improve the passenger experience. It wants to enlarge its terminal, add a covered forecourt and build a new on-site multistorey car park, a loop road layout to improve traffic flow, and airside infrastructure improvements including a new taxiway link.

Bristol also wants to increase capacity to 12 million annual passengers by the mid-2020s. The airport is expected to pass the nine million milestone this year, but capacity is currently limited to ten million.

CGI rendering of expansion at Bristol airport


Cost: £100 million, Estimated completion: 2030

Liverpool has a “Vision 2030” to go from about five million passengers a year to 7.8 million. Its bosses want better transport links, including direct rail access, and have also proposed an expansion of the terminal building, additional car parking, new facilities including hotels, retail, food and drink services and a potential extension of the runway – although planning permission has not been sought.


Cost: TBC, Estimated completion: TBC

There’s also the case of the UK’s biggest airport. Last year Heathrow saw 80 million passengers fly to 84 countries from four terminals. If everything goes its way that could rise to 130 million a year, flying from three runways. The plan is a huge undertaking, and would see the M25, Britain’s busiest motorway, move up to 150 metres west and run through a tunnel under the new runway.

Heathrow still needs to obtain a Development Consent Order, which approves major infrastructure projects in England and Wales. It seeks to submit its application next year, following public consultations into noise, environmental impact, airspace planning and operations. However, it stresses that its plans are about “more than a runway”. It is also proposing a new central terminal area offering hotels, retail facilities and a covered walkway.

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