Pros and Cons of Heathrow Expansion

Many business leaders are strongly arguing that Britain urgently needs to expand its airport capacity in the south-east. The easiest and quickest method to increase airport expansion would be to expand Heathrow to include a third runway and sixth terminal. However, there is vocal opposition from local residents and green groups against expanding Heathrow. Opponents argue that expanding Heathrow is unnecessary and would significantly increase noise and air pollution, reducing the quality of life for many thousands.

Arguments for Expansion of Heathrow

  1. Without increasing airport capacity, the UK will lose out on business competitiveness and tourism. Lack of airport capacity is often cited as a constraint on expanding UK business. Heathrow is the quickest option to build a world-class hub airport. The alternative, such as building a hub on the Thames estuary would take several years longer (up to 20 years).
    heathrow benefitssource (FoE) – who also criticise these figures
  2. Cost Effective. Heathrow already had good transport links. A third runway would be the cheapest way to create additional capacity.
  3. Existing Infrastructure. Heathrow already has a well-developed transport infrastructure which increases the efficiency of adding an extra runway at Heathrow. High Speed II could be extended to Heathrow offering a fast connection from  Birmingham.
  4. Employment. Heathrow is also a big employer in the area supporting 250,000 jobs. Relocating to another hub airport would lead to job losses in the Heathrow area.
  5. In 2001, over 8.5 million passed through Heathrow, representing almost 40% of all visitors from overseas. pdf
  6. Predicted air travel growth. In 2000, the Department for Transport produced air passenger forecasts for the United Kingdom. These forecasts predicted a significant increase from 160 million passengers per annum (mppa) in 1998 to over 400 mppa by 2020. The 2003 Air Transport White Paper subsequently forecast traffic growing between 400 to 600 mppa by 2030. The majority of these new passengers are projected to pass through airports in the South East of England. (expansion of Heathrow airport)

Richard Branson of Virgin airways supporting the expansion of Heathrow said:

“Virgin Atlantic has not been able to put on new routes for years. All those extra travellers are going to France, to Germany, to Italy, to Spain and the country is being held back.

“A new runway will be built at Heathrow. It’s obviously been stymied for political reasons. It’s just a matter of when it will be built and which politician will be brave enough to get on and do it.”

Arguments Against Heathrow Expansion

  • 725,000 people already living under the flight path. The high population density means it is not the ideal location for an airport. It makes sense to increase capacity in an area with lower population density
  • External Costs: Noise and air pollution would increase through expansion. Pollution levels near Heathrow are already high. Increasing capacity would add to the problems of air and noise pollution. (FOE pdf)
  • John Stewart, of the Airport Watch campaign, said Heathrow would become the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the country]
  • The business case for expanding Heathrow is exaggerated.  Only 12% of air travel is directly business related [link]
  • Even with two runways, Heathrow manages one of the highest numbers of international flights. Heathrow has 990 departure flights each week to the world’s key business centres – that is more than its two closest rivals, Charles de Gaulle (484) and Frankfurt (450), combined. [link]
  • There are better long-term alternatives. The mayor of London has supported a completely new scheme in the Thames Estuary, which could become a major dedicated hub airport.
  • With the growth of internet and teleconferencing, it is possible that business will adapt and limit the growth of business trips rather than expensive travel. (Lloyds limit business travel)
  • Environmentalists argue that increasing airport capacity would lead to increased CO2 emissions. Rather than expanding short haul flights, the government should be keeping the cost of flying high to reflect the social cost of flying. Instead, there could be an encouragement of train travel to replace short haul flights.


If you were starting from scratch, nobody would suggest building London’s major hub airport in such a highly populated area. Building an airport away from a major population centre would help reduce the cost of noise and air pollution to local residents. However, there is concern that without expanding Heathrow, the UK will have a major infrastructure bottleneck, which could damage London’s competitive advantage. Where-ever you increase airport capacity, there will be increased pollution and environmental problems. For example, building in the Thames estuary could cause conflict with local wildlife and birds flying into jet propellers.

Any decision needs to weigh up the alternative arguments and weighing the interests of residents, environment and business. It is not an easy choice, with strong opinions on both sides of the debate. It is not a surprise the government has taken the easy way out and delayed any decision to 2015. The problem is that delaying the decision will merely increase the length of time to decide on a suitable investment, which business say they need now.

However, there is also a debate about the accuracy of growth forecasts and whether we should encourage a form of transport that contributes to the potentially very high costs of global warming.


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