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.


9 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Heathrow Expansion”

  1. Frankfurt went through exactly this process a few years ago. The airport owners (Fraport) insisted that there would be significant redundancies in the area if they didn’t get a fourth runway. They proposed three locations, one of which was an obvious non-starter anyway, Because a chemical plant was in the way of their favourite, they bought the company and relocated the plant. As the town of Frankfurt is itself a shareholder in the airport operating company, any political resistance was token. Protesters camped out in the forest that was to be felled, and were eventually removed by the police (but thankfully it didn’t escalate to the scale of the infamous ‘Startbahn West’ riots protesting against the third runway where a policeman was shot). And the result? The runway (for landing only) has brought thousands more aircraft MUCH nearer to the inhabitants of south Frankfurt (primarily Sachsenhausen) and they are subjected to a constant stream of low-flying aircraft. The air often smells awful. Properties have dramatically lost value. The ‘Stadtwald’ forest is no longer pleasant for relaxation. The lake has an oily film on it. The supposed night-time flight ban from 11pm till 5am supposedly allows delayed or emergency flights to land, but is broken frequently by over 100 flights every month, especially by the Irish low-cost airline. Frankfurt’s airport has, like Heathrow, historically developed from a small airfield in a then thinly populated area. Both now are surrounded by thousands of living, breathing people who have a right to an adequate quality of life. It’s NOT just about the ‘economic’ benefit anyway: it’s about the residents that will be affected, their health and their quality of life! Munich made the right decision years ago by building an entirely new ‘green field’ airport well away from the city. The only sensible solution for southern England is to do the same. And then there’s the question: why expand in the south? What’s with the Midlands and North of England? They would both benefit immensely from having improved international connections, wouldn’t they?

  2. Your above comment is appreciated. But to my knowledge ever country in the world has quite a few cities that can compete with each other. As you stated Munich and Frankfurt. Los Angeles, New York,etc. But in the case of U.K it is only London. All the rest are for name sake only. Therefore when it comes to London It is Heathrow obviously. The next factor when considering the cost of building a new runway else were is humongous. Hence Heathrow which I think is the right choice. Sorry its my opinion.

  3. this is all very interesting and i can see the pros and con in both arguments, though it is heart breaking 152 houses are being destroyed there is many benefits from other purposes for other people in the long run and this will increase our growing UK to global economy for exporting

  4. Heathrow serves a bigger population than Chicago O’hare (london’s 8million vs chicago’s 2million), but O’hare has 8 runways. 8. Heathrow only has two, so shouldn’t the bigger aiport have more runways?


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