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Article from BTNews 14 SEPTEMBER 2015

COMMENT SPECIAL: The (even) shorter Heathrow runway

Following Jock Lowe’s plea that the extended northern runway is the answer to the Prime Minister’s dilemma, aviation expert David Starkie has come up with the idea of a shortened version of the Heathrow Airport Ltd (HAL) scheme.

The Unexplored Runway Options at Heathrow

Opposition to the Airports Commission’s recommendation that additional airport capacity in the London region should be located at Heathrow and not Gatwick has received a boost from an unexpected quarter.  Willie Walsh, Chairman of IAG, the holding company for BA, launched a strongly worded attack on the proposal, saying that it was “outrageous” and that IAG would neither support nor pay for it. What particularly riled Walsh was the prospective bill for the added capacity; over £17 billion for the 3500m runway favoured by Heathrow Airport Ltd, located to the northwest of the airport but stretching across the M25.  In addition, £5 billion is required to upgrade transport links to the airport although, in this case, the taxpayer rather than airlines would most likely foot the bill.

Some would say that opposition by IAG is to be expected and not just because airport charges will increase substantially.  Once the merger with Aer Lingus is completed, it will have more than half the high yielding Heathrow slots but extra capacity will introduce more competition pushing down yields and cutting profits. Nevertheless, does Willie Walsh have a point? Is a 3500m runway a gold plated solution to the current capacity crunch?

At earlier stage in this seemingly never ending saga, HAL was happy to propose a runway of 2800m to the north of the current airport site.  From data submitted to the Airports Commission, we know that, compared with HAL’s final preference, the cost of this option is around £3 billion (nearly 20%) less, but it cuts annual runway capacity marginally, by less than 6%, (to 702,000 movements).  It has the disadvantage of requiring more property to be demolished and its noise impact is less favourable. It does, however, have a number of important advantages.  It avoids the need to put the M25 in a tunnel (certainly no easy task) and to relocate an important waste disposal plant (according to the Commission “a substantial exercise in its own right”).  This runway would be available for use a year earlier, possibly even sooner if the tunnel and other off-site works do not go to plan.

The 6% reduction in runway capacity arises because the very largest jets could land but not take off fully loaded from the shorter runway; movements would have to be shuffled around the runways, leaving room on Heathrow’s two existing, long runways for more departures by wide-bodied jets.  But are there still other options?

What if the added runway was shorter still, say 1800m, thus limiting it to narrow body operations, (but also located to the northwest on the axis of the long runway)? By deduction, this will result in an overall capacity of around 660,000 annual movements (a good third more than is currently available).  By re-assigning some short-haul movements, currently using Heathrow’s two long runways, to a new short runway, added capacity is still available for more long-haul flights.  The short runway’s advantages are that, apart from a possible still further advance in the date at which extra capacity comes on-stream, costs would be relatively low, perhaps even low enough to get a grudging acceptance from Willie Walsh.  And, by careful positioning, it might also take some of the sting out of the environmental opposition (the runway’s eastern threshold could be shifted to the west of that proposed for the long runway, reducing still further noise impacts).

But could we go further and take a leaf out of Jock Lowe’s book?  An initial short runway to the northwest could be the first stage of a future long runway, leaving plenty of time to plan and execute the difficult construction tasks of the M25 tunnel, waste plant relocation and of splicing together end-to-end runways. The latter task could be accomplished without interrupting operations off the short runway if the longest possible runway without intruding upon the M25, was built initially (but use made only of the first 1800m).  Such a staged project is likely to have an advantage of making it more financeable; reducing the initial capital outlay, reducing the delivery risk, bringing forward a revenue stream and generally testing the strength of demand for extra runway capacity, for example, testing easyJet’s claim that it would launch Heathrow-based routes.

The basic point is that most attention has been focussed on selecting the best airport location for an additional “full sized” runway. Less attention has been given to possible trade-offs between runway length, costs, and the speed at which new capacity can be made available, each dimension having different costs and benefits.  It is true that a full size runway provides most operational flexibility, resilience and longer term capacity, but that comes at a price and, largely overlooked, it delays the time when any extra capacity becomes available.  Given the pressing need for more capacity, crystallised in the arguments of the Airports Commission, prospective delay is a serious disadvantage of a ‘big bang’ approach to the runway dilemma.

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