So it will be Heathrow, or maybe it will not. With no clear airport expansion solution in sight, a pragmatic answer is needed urgently. The Airports Commission recommends a controversial £17 billion third runway west of London but other developments could affect the UK’s crowded airspace. Jon Herbert reports.

The Battle for Britain’s skies promises many casualties and few happy landings before a final pragmatic decision on how to increase the UK’s airport capacity is taken by hopefully fair-minded politicians. As history has predicted many times before, it will all be over by Christmas.

Until then, the arguments will be made, rebuffed, reinforced and refuted by residents, business leaders concerned about international trade, environmental groups who feel that frequent fliers should pay more for the privilege, and local MPs who happen to hold senior ministerial posts.

The final decision will be as much about air quality, carbon reduction targets, noise pollution, road traffic and sustainable visions of the future as air transport itself. It will also focus sharply on the projected £147 billion of additional world commerce and 70,000 new jobs forecast in the UK Airports Commission’s recent report, albeit spread out over 60 years. There would also be 250,000 more flights into Heathrow each year.

The “north” wants a slice of aviation action too

At the core of the debate is a concern that Britain needs a world-class modern air hub that acts as a major node for global travel — with knock-on transit gains for the local and national economy. The alternative view is that the potential for environmental damage means that it is now time to “travel and trade” through the internet rather than in person.

After three years of detailed study, the Government’s commission headed by former CBI Director General and first chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Sir Howard Davies, has concluded that the least worst option is further expansion at Heathrow — with strong caveats restricting night flights, air pollution, noise and a complete block on any further expansion. However, Gatwick is not ruled out in the Commission’s findings.

So controversial is the Commission’s recommendation that even supporters have referred to it as the right answer that will also prove to be the wrong answer.

But while the Home Counties tremble at the prospect of more aircraft winging in overhead, other parts of the UK and world rather like the idea of more planes, people and pennies.

Manchester is proposing its own northern global aviation revolution with a new super-sized terminal, faster security, more passengers and more routes. It is not alone, as airports across the planet expand furiously.

Manchester’s £1 billion airport proposal

Although Network Rail was forced to admit recently that the £38 billion UK rail revolution has yet to leave the platform, Manchester is determined not to be left behind when it comes to air travel.

Manchester Airport’s £1 billion transformation over 10 years will be Greater Manchester’s largest ever single construction project. It will more than double the size of Terminal Two and link it to an improved Terminal Three. An ageing Terminal One will be demolished.

Meanwhile, off-peak security queues will be cut to just five minutes at the end of long trans-global flights. The number of airport jobs will double to 40,000 in 30 years. Ten million extra passengers will go through the hub annually a decade from now.

The investment is seen as a boost for Manchester’s battle to be recognised by the Government as the natural capital of the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse concept. Its additional aim is to attract airlines and add new long-haul routes to Asia and the east and west coasts of America.

Work will start in April 2016, with Terminal Two complete by 2023. By 2050, it is hoped that 55 million passengers will use the hub every year; the current throughput is 23 million. Manchester Airport currently serves more than 70 airlines and 210 destinations, brings in £1.8 billion annually to the regional economy, employs 20,000 people and supports a further 25,000 jobs.

It is the only UK airport outside London with direct routes to Miami, Hong Kong, Jeddah, Singapore, Atlanta, Washington and Boston.

However, HS2 and the east–west rail connections of HS3 are said to be central to the expansion scheme.

Worldwide airport boom

Climate change worries aside, the world is currently going all out to build mega-airports.

In Turkey, what will be one of the world’s largest airports is being built 20 miles from Istanbul. Announced just two years ago, it will open in 2018 with 6 runways to handle 150 million passengers a year travelling to and from 350 destinations. It will have twice the capacity of Heathrow!

Mexico City is building what will be the biggest airport in the Americas. Its designer is Baron Foster of Thames Bank (Norman Foster). South of Beijing, the new Daxing airport is being constructed on land of equivalent size to Bermuda.

According to consultants KPMG by 2036, 50 new runways will be built near the world's major cities — 17 of them in China. KPMG's global head of aviation, James Stamp, explains that these are not vanity projects. Rather, “these countries know they need airports as part of their essential infrastructure to support their economic growth,” he says.

Another indication of the size of the aviation industry is the future order books of plane manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus. Airbus is reported to have estimated that air traffic will double in size over the next 15 years. Both companies believe much of the growth will come from increasingly prosperous emerging economies, including China and India.

The Asia Pacific region is predicted to become the largest air travel market in the world.

Though it might please worried residents of west London, another prediction made only seven years ago by the then chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, is also beginning to come true.

He warned that the construction of a new aviation mega-hub at Dubai would allow global air traffic to bypass European hubs as a stopover between Asia and North America. Dubai is now larger than Heathrow and is the world’s new number one in terms of passenger numbers.

When Dubai’s World Central Airport project is finally finished, it will have a higher passenger capacity than all of London's five airports put together. Oxford Economics forecasts that by 2020, 37.5% of Dubai's GDP will come from the aviation-related sector.

Ethiopia, as one of Africa's fastest growing economies situated strategically between Africa and the Middle East, is hoping for similar mega-hub status. State-owned Ethiopian Airlines is expanding its fleet in anticipation. Like Emirates, it hopes to grow in tandem with an expanding hub airport.

Where will this trend end? One suggestion is that the tipping point will come when virtual meetings are real enough to replace the need for business travel — virtual holidays will presumably be a non-starter. Prestige projects might also run their course. Residents might also learn to rebel.

Clever ways of fitting in more aircraft

Even if Heathrow does get a third runway, there are other ways to pack more planes into a limited airspace and bring them to the ground safely more quickly.

As an alternative to a new runway, there has been a concerted campaign to extend Heathrow’s northern runway westwards. The lengthened runway would then be divided into two working runways joined end-to-end, with a 650-metre safety zone between the two. It is claimed that this could increase air handling capacity by 45% by 2023.

If this proposal was adopted, proponents say the need to build a third runway at Heathrow, or a second at Gatwick, would fall away. The widely advertised scheme is said to have the potential to increase UK economic activity by some £214 billion in a foreseeable time frame.

More airliners flying closer together

Another new innovation in air travel might affect the lives of people under busy flight paths. According to air traffic controllers, it could also cut delays for passengers by reducing the time that noisy, carbon-emitting planes remain airborne at the end of long journeys. The idea is to separate planes by time rather than distance.

A team at NATS (previously the National Air Traffic Control Service) has studied the problem for four years. Now Heathrow will become the first busy air-hub to try out the new concept. It pivots around the idea that headwinds can safely alter the distance between aircraft approaching to land. The Time-Based Separation (TBS) system bunches aircraft closer together. Some 65 days a year are affected by wind. The new system could save some eight aircraft movements lost every hour.

One other aviation proposal to manage the vast number of flights around the world could see airliners flying in closely formatted squadrons. The suggestion is that they would deliver first-class passengers with priority landing rights to the world’s airports. Watch this space for protests from the cheaper seats.

Tickets please

One thing the UK is good at as a nation is long-term fudges. This time, compromise might be a very short-term answer. In aviation, the decades roll by quickly. A solid strategic solution is needed.

However, in a small overcrowded, highly-developed democratic island, there may not be the political, social or physical space to make this possible. Meanwhile, there has to be hope that new fuels and technologies will make noise, carbon and air pollution increasingly a thing of the past.

Heathrow’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, has summarised the present situation: “This debate has never been about a runway,” he says. “It has 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.”

Last reviewed 14 July 2015