U.K. Airport Study to Weigh Moving Heathrow Over M25 Highway

U.K. Airport Study to Weigh Moving Heathrow Over M25 Highway
Aircraft sit on the runway in this aerial view of Heathrow Airport in London, U.K. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

A U.K. study into retaining London’s status as a hub for international travel will consider options including expanding Heathrow airport via the construction of four new runways above the M25 motorway, in addition to long-standing plans such as an island terminal in the Thames estuary.

Options for upgrading Heathrow, hemmed in by housing on three sides and London’s ring road on the west, will be fully explored as the Airports Commission seeks “plausible” ways of adding capacity, Chairman Howard Davies said. Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government has ruled out any decision to expand Europe’s busiest hub during the current Parliament.

“The government has made it clear that we can relook at those options,” Davies said at press conference in London today at which he detailed the probe’s objectives. “The coalition commitment not to go forward with those options during the life of this Parliament is firm, but options after that are open.”

The construction of a third runway at Heathrow north of the current site will be evaluated, Davies said, together with more novel options such as linking Cardiff airport in Wales to London via a high-speed rail line. The plan to expand Heathrow to the west, proposed last month by the Policy Exchange research group, entails building 3-kilometer (2-mile) long runways over the M25 and Wraysbury reservoir, thereby reducing the impact on housing.

Terminals Retained

Heathrow attracted 69.4 million passengers in 2011 and is operating close to the capacity of its two runways. The Policy Exchange initiative would increase the limit to 130 million people a year using all existing passenger facilities, except Terminal 4. One new building would be required toward the west of the site, where Wraysbury reservoir would be filled in.

“It is not technically difficult to construct such an airport,” according to the report published Oct. 5, which put the project’s cost at about 10 billion pounds ($16 billion). “The runways would run above the M25, as happens at Atlanta, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Manchester and other airports.”

Heathrow Airport Ltd., formerly BAA, said it is hopeful the Davies Commission will help establish a consensus on the need to expand capacity before rigorously assessing the alternatives. “None of the options for hub airport capacity is easy,” it said. “Every choice, including doing nothing, has its consequences.”

Cameron ’Open’

Stewart Wingate, chief executive officer at London Gatwick airport, the busiest in the world with a single runway, said today that his site south of London is ripe for development.

“A new runway at Gatwick could be more affordable and practical than other options,” he said in a statement. “We would have a significantly lower environmental impact when compared, for example, to a third runway at Heathrow.”

Cameron, who ordered the study amid pressure from business to abandon his pledge ruling out the expansion of Heathrow, has indicated he’ll examine its findings “with an open mind,” Davies said. Still, expanding Heathrow might require the premier’s Tories to win an outright majority at the next election, since their Liberal Democrat coalition partners voted on Sept. 23 to reject building new runways at any of London’s main airports.

Island Option

London Mayor Boris Johnson, a party colleague of Cameron’s, also opposes any new runway at an existing site and favors construction of a wholly new hub on a sandbank in the Thames estuary east of the capital, dubbed “Boris Island.”

Ex-Transport Secretary Justine Greening, who represents a district under the Heathrow flight path and had opposed its growth, was replaced by Patrick McLoughlin in a cabinet reshuffle in September. Johnson said at the time that the move might indicate Cameron was planning to press ahead with expanding the airport, something he described as “madness.”

Short-Term Boost

Transport Minister Simon Burns committed to accepting the findings of the Davies study last month at the Airport Operators Association conference. The Department for Transport is “convinced that it will deliver,” according to an e-mail today.

Davies will submit an interim report on options for preserving London’s hub status next year while making recommendations on boosting capacity on existing runways over the next five years. Measures might include night flights and “mixed mode” operation, in which runways are used for take-offs and landings simultaneously.

A final report is due no later than summer 2015, after the next election, and will recommend a long-term strategy and the best way of implementing it, Davies said at the press briefing.

The former chairman of the U.K. Financial Services Authority will be assisted by Geoff Muirhead, who ran Manchester airport until 2010, John Armitt, ex-chairman of the body that oversaw construction of stadiums for the 2012 Olympics and a past rail-industry chief, plus erstwhile BP Plc executive Vivienne Cox and academics Julia King and Ricky Burdett.

Cox was CEO of BP Alternative Energy, while King has a background in aerospace engineering and is a member of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent adviser to the U.K. government. Burdett is professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics.

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