Heathrow expansion: the next step

29 Nov 2007 by Mark Caswell

As a government study gives the green light to Heathrow expansion, how soon can business travellers expect to reap the benefits?  We answer your questions

What is the significance of the latest announcement?

The study which was published last week presents the results of more than three years’ work by the Department of Transport (DfT). Back in 2003, the government gave its backing to expansion at Heathrow in a White Paper, on condition that it could be achieved without breaching strict environmental and noise limits. The DfT’s study says that this is achievable, either by building a third runway or moving to “mixed mode” usage of the two existing runways.

What’s “mixed mode” usage?

At present, Heathrow uses one runway for arrivals and one for departures; under “mixed mode” both runways would be used for arrivals and departures.

Is that safe?

Absolutely. Gatwick uses “mixed mode”, as do all airports with only one runway.

How would that help?

Heathrow is currently operating at 98 per cent of its capacity, which is capped at 480,000 ATMs (air-traffic movements) per year. This means that there is very little resilience in the schedules, and something as simple as fog can cause severe delays. Switching to “mixed mode” (which could be achieved by 2010) would significantly increase capacity. If the current cap was maintained, it would allow a lot more leeway in the schedules. If the cap is lifted, capacity could rise to 540,000 ATMs per annum by 2015.

It seems like a no-brainer. Why don’t they just go ahead with it?

This is where it gets complicated. Even if the number of flights isn’t increased, moving to “mixed mode” would change the pattern of noise and air pollution over west London. It would also mean that more planes have to take off to the east from Heathrow (ie towards the centre of the city), and planes make more noise taking off than landing. For these reasons, even moving to “mixed mode” without expanding capacity requires a policy decision from the government.

Would it be better just to get on with building another runway?

The economic case for a third runway at Heathrow is overwhelming, as was demonstrated by the government study published in 2003 which led to the publication of the White Paper. In particular, there are major concerns that London will lose both aviation and other business to the continent if expansion plans aren’t put in place. Similar hubs across the Channel are much better equipped – Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport has five runways, Paris Charles de Gaulle has four, and Frankfurt airport has three (and is planning a fourth). Richard Lambert, chairman of the CBI, said last week that he knew of several major financial institutions – including Deutsche Bank, UBS and Citigroup – which have threatened to halt expansion in London if nothing is done about sorting out Heathrow. He added: “Expansion at Heathrow is critical to the City and investment banks. There are plenty of people out there who want to eat our lunch.”

Would the new runway solve Heathrow’s problems?

It would certainly help, but it’s a long-term solution rather than a quick fix. A third runway would increase capacity to 700,000 ATMs per annum (a 46 per cent increase from today’s levels), but it wouldn’t come online until 2020. The ideal solution would therefore be to switch to “mixed mode” while work is going forward on the new runway.

So what happens next?

The Department of Transport has opened a 14-week consultation, and invited comments from the public on the results of its study (it is holding a series of exhibitions around west London, starting next week in Barnes). The consultation period ends on February 27, after which the DfT will assess the responses and a policy decision will be made as soon as possible, but at the latest by the end of 2008.

Does this mean that the process could be stopped if enough people are against it?

Not according to the DfT. A spokesman said: “The government is convinced of the economic requirement for a third runway at Heathrow. If people come back and say, ‘We don’t want a third runway’, that won’t stop it being built. But if they come back and say, ‘Your figures don’t stack up’, we might change our backing for a third runway. It certainly isn’t a done deal.”

And once a policy decision is taken?

It’s still very much not the end of the process. If the government decides to go for a third runway, BAA will still have to get planning permission for it. As things stand at the moment, this would mean a lengthy and expensive public enquiry; however, the Department of Communities and Local Government is currently putting through a Planning Bill, which could change the way major public projects are handled. Under the new Bill, the government would devise national policy statements, covering certain areas of life such as aviation, which would be put together after consultation and debate. Once these policies were accepted, individual projects could then be approved relatively quickly by an independent planning committee, provided that they fitted the policy requirements. The Bill was introduced to Parliament this week, and could be in place by the time the third runway at Heathrow comes up for discussion, which would speed the process up significantly.

In the meantime, would switching to “mixed mode” require planning permission?

There wouldn’t have to be a public enquiry, but this might still require a planning application if it involves physical work to the runway or apron. There are also some elements of changing the airspace use which could have a planning dimension. In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority has some procedures in terms of airspace reallocation which need to be followed; however, changes to other agreements governing the direction and frequency of take-off would only need formal consent from the Secretary of State.

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Report by Lucy Fitzgeorge-Parker

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