A Hoover Dam in the Thames – the growing political will to replace Heathrow with an all-new airport

Tide turns for Thames airport? Serious newspapers, as well as the tabloids, are claiming there is government support for a new London airport.

Surprise! After campaigning on a platform that insisted that London Heathrow’s cheap-to-build third runway would not be realised, and claiming aviation growth in the south-east was environmentally unacceptable and economically unjustified, the UK coalition government and the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, have suddenly put political will behind the idea of a replacement for Heathrow by building a Hong Kong/Kansai-style mega airport in the Thames Estuary. It seems that the Mayor and the maturing ‘new’ government has finally understood the significance of aviation as a facilitator of global economic business… maybe as a result of seeing Frankfurt recently celebrating the opening of its fourth runway at a time when the UK is feeling generally uncomfortable about its competitiveness vis-à-vis Germany.

Following the lead of Berlin, Hong Kong, Munich, Oslo, Paris, Osaka…

Other cities have faced the issue of what to do when a busy and successful airport runs out of room to grow. Hong Kong, Munich, and Oslo have all built new airports further away from the city centres in the past 20 years and, when the new airport was opened, they closed the old one. Berlin will do the same next year when services start at Brandenburg and Berlin Tegel closes.

Compared to any major city on Earth, London has a lot of competing airports – Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, London City, as well as London Southend (also east of London by the Thames and now an easyJet base). Given the competitive ownership of these, it seems unlikely that any could be simply persuaded to close.

Heathrow’s characteristics: connections and foreign passengers

The recent publication of the CAA Passenger Survey Report 2010, which included looking at passenger characteristic at all London airports (except Southend), reveals how Heathrow differs from the other London airports.

Heathrow (LHR) Gatwick (LGW) Stansted (STN) Luton (LTN) London City (LCY)
Passengers 2010 (m) 65.75 31.35 18.57 8.74 2.78
Passenger ‘growth’ 2010 -0.2% -3.1% -6.9% -4.2% -0.6%
Connecting traffic share 35.8% 8.4% 6.4% 2.4% 1.9%
UK resident (Business) 12.8% 9.4% 9.3% 13.8% 31.2%
UK resident (Leisure) 28.9% 65.4% 48.2% 56.6% 18.1%
Foreign resident (Business) 17.3% 5.1% 7.1% 5.1% 31.9%
Foreign resident (Leisure) 41.0% 20.0% 35.3% 24.4% 18.8%
Business traffic share 30.1% 14.5% 16.4% 18.9% 63.1%
Foreign resident share 58.3% 25.1% 42.4% 29.5% 50.7%
Source: UK CAA Passenger Survey Report 2010

Most obviously, Heathrow is the only London area airport where more than 10% of passengers are connecting from one flight to another. At Heathrow, this is around 36%, which is still lower than at several other major hub airports in Europe. Obviously, connecting passengers would have no issue with using an airport further from central London, or with a location where the catchment area is reduced by being next to the sea, as these passengers would never leave the airport. Despite crude claims that connecting passengers do not bring benefits to the UK economy, many long-haul routes are reliant on feed from connecting traffic (often at both ends of the route) to make a service viable and, indeed, due to Heathrow’s existing runway capacity shortage, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris all offer direct services to more destinations than Heathrow.

Business passengers constitute around three in every 10 passengers at Heathrow, more than at Gatwick, Luton and Stansted (and considerably less than the 63% at London City Airport, although this is a unique style airport serving the financial district).

Heathrow also has the highest share of passengers who live outside of the UK – 60% of passengers are resident abroad and over 40% are much-needed visiting tourists. These passengers would presumably be very happy to arrive at a showcase, efficient airport with good transport links to wherever they plan to stay.

Cost/benefit analysis versus grand vision

The appeal of replacing Heathrow with an estuary airport would depend on the transport links provided to and from the new airport – and bizarrely far greater volumes of people are likely to be nuisance-impacted by the new road and railways needed by the new airport than there would by another runway at Heathrow, which is already fully-served by ground transport infrastructure.

Besides having less environmental impact on both people and nature, a simple scientific cost/benefit analysis would show that a third runway at Heathrow would be fashionably much cheaper – Frankfurt’s new fourth runway cost only €600 million – while options for a new Thames airport have been floated around the €70 billion mark (about half a Greek bailout package).

But while the cost of a Thames Estuary airport would be huge, it would resolve the issue of London airport capacity for the foreseeable future, if not the futures of the many other airports. It would also no doubt create much wealth and jobs – after all, Europe and the UK does have world-leading airport technology suppliers (several of which were involved in building the Hong Kong Airport). And, most importantly from a route development perspective, it would renew London’s competitive edge versus its European rivals.

So while a third runway at Heathrow would be the simplest, cheapest, and speediest competitive option, maybe it is time for the UK to embrace a more continental approach to long-term planning. Maybe, after the apparent success of delivering the Olympic facilities, perhaps the UK now has the confidence, appetite, and belief in Hoover Dam-style grand projects. After all, many of the Olympic facilities are in East London – the largest port in the world until the 1950s when it was destroyed by a total lack of vision, investment and competitiveness… does any of this sound familiar?


  1. Andrew says:

    I think that the non-Schengen process for overseas transfers and the excessive taxes are the main competitive disadvantages suffered by all UK airports. Why fly through London, pay more and be re-screened when I can fly through Frankfurt or Zurich for less and have a shorter connection.

  2. Terence Davies says:

    I too believe that a third runway at Heathrow would be the most environmentally friendly and another massive consideration is what happens to the umpteen thousands of employees who are thrown out of work, let alone the greater local economy, if Heathrow were forced to close? Furthermore, what about the population who live to the West of London? It would take an eternity to get to the fogged out Thames Hub that had already suspended services due to thousands of geese flying over. Then there is the air traffic effect on other South-East airports, the whole idea is ill thought out and primarily for some folk to make fortunes.
    I believe that regional airports such as ‘London Southend’ can answer some of the capacity problems, but the ultimate answer for Britain is for the government to govern and construct a third runway at what is the U.K’s. major hub, namely Heathrow!

    Lord Foster may very well have succeeded in developing the new Hong Kong Airport, but where else could it have been built? Perhaps he could build a new giant pyramid, but what would be the point?

  3. John Morris says:

    Oher European countries have more than one major airport, including Germany which is building its sixth.

    There is no reason, other than selfish self-interest, that the UK should not adopt the same model

    Birmingham Airport has the capacity to take an additional nine million passengers a year immediately, with planning consent to expand towards 30 million.

    The economic case for using spare capacity at Birmingham and other airports is even stronger once the new High Speed Rail Network is factored in.

    With the South-east overheating and the regions crying out for direct connectivity, we can have the best of both worlds by supporting a rebalanced economy.

    If you have a number of large airports and distribute them around the country then everyone gets a bit of the economic benefit that flows from that.

    The idea that the UK should have only one hub airport in London or indeed in the sea – closer to the Dutch than most of the UK population – is ridiculous and smacks more of someone leaving a legacy than a serious attempt to resolve and rebalance UK transport and economic needs.

    What the UK needs is a more realistic and balanced approach towards future aviation policy than the self-interest emerging from various factions in London and the South-East.

    arrival of high speed rail would enable the airport to complement Heathrow.

    The coalition agreement says no more runway capacity in the South-east of England. It does not say no more capacity FOR the South-east of England.

    If we want to rebuild our manufacturing base and if we are going to access export markets of the world’s emerging economies, we have got to have direct links from all parts of the UK – and not make needless trips to the South-East.

  4. michael wolff says:

    An airport in the South-east with few expansion constraints is the obvious way to go and I’m a firm believer in a proper strategic approach to transport infrastructure. The investment cost would of course be colossal and whatever figure presently assumed is bound to bear little relation to the final outturn price. But if the new airport replaced Heathrow and some of the other London airports the value of real estate released would partly compensate and would certainly provide leverage for the private investment capital needed.

    On the other hand, the problems needing to be overcome suggest that even if this venture were to materialise, we are not likely to see it until well after London has lost its pre-eminent position in world air transport, with consequential economic consequences for the UK. And any diminution of the role of Heathrow would have immense consequences for businesses in the M4 corridor and the people who depend on it for their livelihood.

    So, whichever way you stir the pot, a third runway at Heathrow has to be the immediate way forward irrespective of any long term strategy. Despite this unassailable logic, as it stands London’s future has effectively been officially sacrificed by all three UK political parties, although Labour would not have changed tack had the Tories not rejected it before they came to power (for narrow political reasons, and certainly not for any serious environmental case).

    Arguments about the redistribution of air traffic elewhere in the UK have never – and will never add up. In a free market, people will fly from airports which offer convenience and the right schedules – nothing else matters. And size is absolutely imperative for schedules, since frequency and range of destinations is determined by the ability to fill seats and for very many services this depends on connecting traffic. People will avoid connecting through any airport if that means a train journey to another airport.

  5. Phixer says:

    A 3rd runway at Heathrow may be financially cheaper but at what human cost. Heathrow is past its sell-by date and recent changes are only wallpapering. Central area is an absolute mess; the bus station and inter-terminal link is a disgrace.

    But the worst thing about arriving in London [LHR or LGW] is the 3rd world welcome of rat tunnels, infrastructure broken and a staff attitude out of the real world. I hate using either airport [Jakarta is much nicer].

  6. Juergen says:

    Yeah… Wherever you build, likely you will get trouble with the residents. So why move and have new enemies? Better stick to your existing (known) ones…

  7. Seth Itzkowitz says:

    Expand Biggin Hill!

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