Heathrow: a solution to runway blunders

Hubris or incompetence, take your pick, but for one reason or another, Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) and its sponsoring Department, Transport, have just backed themselves into a corner over the proposed new Heathrow runway.  Following the work of the Airports Commission, the Government announced in the autumn of 2016 that its preferred scheme for an additional runway in the south-east was a new north-west runway at Heathrow.  This decision was placed in the context of a National Policy Statement (currently still in revised draft) which, at some stage before the project can proceed, has to be voted on by Parliament.

The NPS stipulates a runway length of at least 3,500 metres which is very costly to construct, not least because it has to get across a wide M25 at a point where the motorway probably is Britain’s busiest. The proposal is to place the motorway in a tunnel. The Airports Commission thought its cost would be about £0.58bn. Highways England considers that there is significant potential for cost overruns and places an upper estimate in excess of £1.0bn (at 2014 prices).

The runway will also plough through the Lakeside energy from waste plant, the relocation of which according to the Airports Commission “…would be a substantial exercise in its own right…” (Final Report: 11.35). But the waste plant removal and the motorway works result in the last few hundred metres of runway being a very costly and, to motorists, disruptive undertaking.

Curiously, all previous suggestions for a new runway at Heathrow have been for shorter lengths, avoiding the motorway problem. Back in 2007, the government consulted on a 2000m runway; by 2009 this had been pushed out to 2,200 and then, during the early deliberations of the Airports Commission, HAL came up with a plan for a 2,800m scheme. The current proposed length stems from later options submitted to the Airports Commission for what was referred to as a full-length runway. The additional length raises prospective capacity to 740,000 annual movements, a mere 5.5 per cent increase compared with the former shorter runway proposal.

The latest twist to this story is that in January 2018 HAL suggested it might cut 300m from the runway length to save costs, but the need to bury or move the M25 remains. Presumably, this chop to the length cuts potential runway capacity (if not why the extra concrete in the first place)? It means of course that those remaining few hundred metres, requiring drastic surgery to the M25, come at a mind-boggling marginal cost.

The obvious ‘compromise’ is to forgo a trivial amount of runway capacity and pull back the length so that it does not cross the M25. Not only will this save a lot but it will undoubtedly bring forward the opening date for the badly needed additional runway.  However, due to HALs vaulting ambition and the Department’s short-sightedness in incorporating a minimum length in the NPS, there is a snag. Opponents of expansion have threatened Judicial Review for any length shorter than 3,500m on the grounds that the economic case rested on this length of runway.

So let me offer another ‘compromise’ based I believe on a commonsense proposal that I first made in 2015. Build the full length runway, but build it in two phases. The initial phase could be constructed up to the M25, a length of approximately 2,500m. At the western end of this initial runway, a safety zone of several hundred metres is created for the workforce to continue constructing the extension over the M25. This would still allow, using the remainder of the first phase of construction, a runway of over 2000m for short-haul flights (leaving more space on existing runways for more long-haul flights). This is about the same operational length as the existing runway at London Luton. Extending a runway whilst in daily use is not exceptional; Birmingham International recently extended its main runway by 400m.

The phasing of the works would have a number of major benefits. First, it would allow more time for planning and executing the difficult task of bridging or tunnelling the M25, (a task which on the present timetable Highways England consider “extremely challenging”) thereby reducing risks of disruption to a critical part of the UK strategic road network.

Second, the simplification of the immediate construction task would allow substantial additional runway capacity to become available more quickly than building a one-off full-length runway, bringing forward benefits for the UK economy.

Third, significant construction costs could be deferred for a few years and this, together with an earlier cash-flow from the use of Phase One, would help the airport to achieve its aim of broadly maintaining current charges to airlines.

What, apart from building a much shorter runway, could be more straight-forward?


Member of the Advisory Committee

Prof David Starkie is a senior associate at Case Associates, London. His many publications include  Aviation Markets: studies in competition and regulatory reform (Ashgate, 2008). David has advised governments and legislatures across the world on transport policy issues. He was economic advisor to the European Commission’s delegation at ICAO-related proceedings on aviation and the environment, Montreal and Washington DC 1995-97, and was on the Civil Aviation Authority’s expert panel for NATS price cap review 2006 and airport competition framework assessments 2010-11. More recently he was on the Airports Commission’s expert advisory panel. David is the author of the book The Motorway Age: How post-war governments reacted to rapid traffic growth.

3 thoughts on “Heathrow: a solution to runway blunders”

  1. Posted 29/01/2018 at 16:44 | Permalink

    Gatwick has none of these problems Heathrow has always been in the wrong place

  2. Posted 30/01/2018 at 16:16 | Permalink

    Gatwick has none of these problems because we need expansion at a hub, not a secondary non-hub.

    But Starkie’s proposal fails because it assumes landing slots are equal – he says we can simply take short-haul flights off the existing runway. But slots are not all equal, as a glance at the prices paid for landing slots shows clearly. Airlines already use most of the slots that are suitable for long-haul flights. You cannot land a long-haul flight at any time you want, either because it will then have a departure nobody wants, or a departure time you cannot use (because of e.g. night flying restrictions at some airports) or you end up with arrival times that are unattractive for business passengers.

    And existing short-haul slots that use suitable times are needed to service Heathrow’s hub function – there’s no point in having connecting passengers wait for 4-8 hours for their long-haul flight. They will simply go to a European hub at that point. So you need banks of short-haul flights servicing long-haul flights at around the same sort of time. Oh and it’s really good to have them in the same terminal too.

    And of course it costs far more to extend a runway later than to build it the right length initially. So how much wold you save? Probably nothing at all, and you might well increase the cost.

  3. Posted 01/02/2018 at 18:26 | Permalink

    So all those earlier schemes for shorter runways put forward by Heathrow were a waste of time?

    It would be nice to see some cost analysis of different runway lengths. And as for costing more to build in two phases, the whole point is to give more time for appropriate planning to get across the M25 and not foul-up the strategic road network. In this risk there are potential cost too.

    More costed analyses of these issues please.

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