Airports, Airlines, Aviation

London Has A Capacity Problem

If you have ever flown from the continental US to London, you have most likely flown through Heathrow. I love flying through Heathrow as it holds a special place in my personal history. Heathrow was the jumping off point when I went to work in London for a six month stint and became enthralled with British culture and way of life.

I remember the final approach, flying over a densely populated village of Hounslow and feeling like our aircraft would touch down on top of a thatch roof. Sure Heathrow is crowded and frequently delayed but it has character that you don’t get at Gatwick, Stansted or Luton. The revamped terminal 5, which mainly serves British Airways, gives Heathrow which may be old but with a large injection of cash can be made to look brand new. The airport is a piece of British history and not addressing its need for increased capacity would be irresponsible financially to the British economy.

T5 at Heathrow
T5 at Heathrow

Max Capacity

Heathrow is the UK’s main hub and busiest airport, with Gatwick coming in second. It’s the fifth busiest airport in the world handling around 70 million passengers in 2013. What makes this so astounding is that there is only two runways. Heathrow is running at 99% capacity, with no additional space to park aircraft or a break ground for a new terminal. Heathrow houses airlines that do business with many international companies and has been the main entry point for businessmen and women for since 1946. It comes as no surprise that for over ten years there have been calls to add a third runway, expand Gatwick or according to London Mayor Boris Johnson, build a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary. While each plan has some valid points (Johnson plan might be considered sheer lunacy) we will focus on the situation at Heathrow and Gatwick.

heathrow expand 2

Call To Action

The UK government setup the British Airport Commission to look at raising the UK passenger capacity. The commission required competing airports and independent parties to have their plans submitted by July 19, 2013. It allowed fringe contributors like Boris Johnson, to have their say at starting from scratch. In my view, to start from scratch would not be a wise decision. The Thames Estuary is to far from London and building additional railway and road systems on top of the price tag of the airport, will be to much for the British taxpayer to bare. Heathrow was the first to submit and when it all shakes down I think will get the nod from the commission. The commission released a shortlist of their top choices at the end of 2013.


Heathrow Airport Limited
Passenger capacity 80m 123m 130m 130m
Max flights 480,000 702,000 740,000 740,000
Cost £14bn £17bn £18bn
Length of new runway 2,800m 3,500m 3,500m
People affected by noise 243,000 -10% -15% -20%
Housing lost 2,700 950 850
Opening date 2025 2026 2029
Construction complexity Low Medium High

North Runway:                                                                                                           Pro’s: Cost, this runway will cost the taxpayer the least, which is huge in the eyes of some Brits. It will take the least amount of time to build and shouldn’t be difficult.

Cons:  The biggest con for me is that you max out at 702,000 flights per year. The whole point is to add capacity, it is a big step up from 480,000 but will it be enough for 50 years and beyond. Also it would result in 2700 houses lost, has the lowest total of passengers and only reduces the people effected by noise by -10%.

Verdict: I vote no on the North Runway. Not enough of an improvement.

North West:                                                                                                                            Pros: Significant increase to passenger and flight capacity, runway length is long at 3,5000 m to accommodate long haul traffic, only 950 homes effected .

Cons: Price has increased to 17 billion pounds , still low with -15% reduction in noise and won’t be finished until 2026.

Verdict: It is a great middle of the road plan that increases capacity, increases runway length with only 950 homes effect but I am still not buying in on the low percentage on the noise factor and don’t feel the price justifies that for the people effected. I vote no on North West Runway.

South West:                                                                                                               Pros: Increase Significant increase to passenger and flight capacity, runway length is long at 3,5000 m to accommodate long haul traffic, only 850 homes effected and a -20% reduction in noise.

Cons: The highest price of all three of the plans at 18 billion pounds, will not be finished 2029 and will be the most difficult to build.

Verdict: I say go big or go home. You will want to compete with the mega hubs of Europe, Gulf States and South East Asia over the next 50 years also this plan is a people pleaser. This plan will cost the most but it will tug at the heart-strings of many by being the least damaging to the people who live in the villages surrounding the airport. The Airport Commission will be wise to heavily consider the human element.

Gatwick Case

Gatwick Airport which is located south of London Center, is lobbying for an additional runway and new terminal. Gatwick is the worlds busiest one runway airport and adding a new runway would boost their standing in terms of international travel. The highlights of the plans are:

  • 10 million more passengers each year would be able to travel with a second runway at Gatwick than with a third runway at Heathrow
  • Gatwick argued that its expansion plans would cost £7.8bn and were cheaper and more beneficial than Heathrow’s
  • The new runway’s length would be 3.4km
  • The new runway would be south of the existing runway and parallel to it
  • Cargo and aircraft maintenance facilities would be located in the northern area of the airport


Airport Commission Shortlist 

Recently the commission put forth its shortlist, of what they thought were the most beneficial proposals. The applicants will now want to fine tune these proposal in hopes their idea is chosen. The shortlist options are:

  • A third runway at Heathrow to the north-west of the existing runways;
  • The extension of Heathrow’s northern-runway, based on the Heathrow Hub organisation’s submission to allow it to operate as two separate runways;
  • A second runway at Gatwick to the south of the existing one.

You can see the commission didn’t go with my go big or go home mentality, they figured the safe bet was the north-west runway. The plan now includes compensation of £550m for the homes that are to be destroyed. The commission also feels adding one runway to Gatwick would suffice and the third option is to extend the northern runway, a plan which was submitted by Heathrow Hub an independent party not affiliated with Heathrow Airport.

The Eccentric Boris Johnson
The Eccentric Boris Johnson

The Airport Commission isn’t set to make a final decision until 2015 after the British general elections, but I think Heathrow Airport plan is the front runner. They have beefed up their package by saying the project would create 123,000 new jobs across the UK. Politicians love to hear that especially if they can add it to their campaign platform. I am very eager to see if Gatwick will put up a fight and you know Boris Johnson won’t go down without putting he two cents in. It will surely be a dog fight until decision time, all sides will leave nothing on the table with this much potential money up for grabs. Until then, enjoy queuing up at all of London’s finest airports.

2 responses to “London Has A Capacity Problem”

  1. Interesting article. I have had been at Heathrow twice in the past and have mixed comments but I was surprised last year when I learnt that in order to change planes at Heathrow you have to have a transit visa if you don’t match a few constraints. Unfortunately, I had booked tickets already through British airways and so I called embassy and terminal 5 to confirm but no satisfactory answer.

    I also heard from a few people who changed planes at Heathrow and had to run through tough immigration checkup because they didn’t buy transit visa ?! Some confusion around which International passenger qualifies without purchasing a transit visa and which doesn’t(acquiring this visa is other bottleneck). Bottom line I was discouraged to buy British Airways via Heathrow and that may be one of the ways to reduce traffic at Heathrow :).

  2. I have heard from my South African friends that they require a Transit Visa to connect via the UK to other destinations. The airlines are really no help when it comes defining those who need one. I can imagine this applies to other countries as well. With Heathrow at max capacity, passport control seems to always be under duress and bottlenecks are definitely frequent. At this time connecting through other UK airports is probably a much simpler process. If Heathrow is awarded a third runway, the increased capacity will force improvements in the customs process. How much better, will be anybody’s guess.

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