No rationale for Heathrow expansion

A growing number of influential people are saying that Heathrow needs a third runway.

The main arguments being voiced are

a)      There’s a crushing shortage of airport capacity in the South East of England.

b)      Heathrow’s status as a business airport  is threatened by congestion

c)       The shortage of runway slots means that flights to China and other important business destinations are unavailable.

The numbers don’t support any of these conclusions.

a)      Shortage of airport capacity in the South East

The number of flights handled by London airports in the year to the first quarter of 2008 was about 975,000. This was down just over 9% from the same figure 4 years earlier, when the figure was 1,073,000. In other words, we know that London can handle at least 98,000 flights than it does at the moment. There’s no shortage of capacity.

b)      Heathrow’s status as a business airport is threatened by congestion

Only 37% of Heathrow passengers were business users in 2011. 63% were leisure fliers. Any problem is caused by holiday passengers.

c)       Flights to China and other boom economies are too few in number

The number of passengers flying to and from the Far East, including China, fell about 2.5% between 2007 and 2011. Only about 3% of UK passengers were going to the Far East. More went to Switzerland.

More details about the abundance of UK flights to China can be found in an earlier post on this web site.


Business air travel is not rising. This may be a function of the state of the world economy or it might reflect a decreasing need for people to get into aeroplanes to do business with each other. The arguments of politicians and journalists that suggest that UK exports are being held back by the lack of Heathrow capacity are palpably weak.

After a ruling from the Competition Commission, Heathrow’s owners have sold Gatwick and have recently reluctantly agreed to dispose of Stansted. Is it unfair to suggest that the public relations campaign to try to convince us that UK plc is being held back by the lack of a third runway at Heathrow is driven simply by a desire to win back business from the newly competitive Gatwick and the threat from Stansted?

  1. Stephen Girolami’s avatar

    In other words, we know that London can handle at least 98,000 more flights than it does at the moment.

  2. MightyDrunken’s avatar

    The call for more run ways and air traffic have been continuous since at least 2003. I believe this is principally due to the 2003 White Paper – The Future of Aviation.

    It predicted;

    “Air travel has increased five-fold over the past 30 years, and demand is projected to be between two and three times current levels by 2030.”

    Now will air travel increase by two or three times by 2030 in the UK? I think that this is highly unlikely, mainly due to increasing fuel costs. But also due to diminishing returns, most people I know who are interested in foreign holidays go on foreign holidays, they are constrained by time and money. With business travel I do not expect an increase in air travel even with increased globalisation because of the raise of the Internet and the simplicity of setting up virtual meetings.

    In fact it feels like we may have reached close to the peak in air travel already. Especially if you consider that to reduce CO2 emissions air traffic is one thing to reduce and there are currently no low carbon alternatives to jet engine fuel.

  3. Tim’s avatar

    The DfT aviation passenger forecasts lag way after the oil price forecasts.

    The last issue in August 2011 used values from DECC from much earlier and there is a perverse policy decision that after 2030 oil prices are presumed to remain static !! It would be interesting (though probably politically dangerous) to see a forecast under current probable figures.

    For projects such as Heathrow where the cost/benefit analysis goes out to 2080, this can be a rather distorting influence.

    As David King has pointed out, investing in carbon-intensive infrastructure is a risky thing to do and creating white-elephant projects doesn’t help the nation. Anyone fancy a cheap Hummer factory ?


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