Construction costs of a third runway in Heathrow are allegedly set to £16,5bn.

Why Heathrow’s third runway is far beyond reality

by Matteo Negro.

St. Paul’s Cathedral spires high from the upper side of Thames, as if it was struggling for a deep breath away from the worldly problems of busy bankers in the City. A major threat is shading its dome, coming directly from Chris Grayling’s words, the UK’s transport minister. Theresa May’s government officially backs the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, further splitting the already upset public opinion after Brexit referendum.

Famously known as the busiest airport in UK and fifth in the world by passengers per year, Heathrow airport hosts approximately one sixth of all UK aircraft movements with an average of 1,293 flights daily. At a short distance from Dubai’s airport, the London hub has the second highest flights per runway ratio in 2015, justifying air controllers’ three years intensive training before actually managing traffic.

The first proposal for the construction of a third runway at Heathrow was dated 2003 and was signed Alistair Darling, the Labour transport secretary at that time. The comprehensive paper covered all aspects concerning air transportation in UK, including demand, limitations of growth and key issues in major airports. Since then, politicians exploited the third runway in almost every political debate over London’s strategy as a globalized city. Chris Grayling defined this as the “truly momentous” step that would “boost connections with the rest of the world”.

Politics aside, Heathrow’s expansion is far from becoming a reality soon. A host of financial, logistic, legal and planning barriers stand in the way.

Despite the fact that building a third runway is tremendously costly, approximately £16.5bn, it is still unclear who will pay for it. Construction costs are likely to be transferred to airliners, inevitably signing the raise on ticket fares for customers and furthermore reducing demand after Brexit. If put into practice, the construction of the third runway could increase the demand for other European hub-and-spoke airports focused on the same clientele, such as Paris-Charles De Gaulle, Frankfurt or Amsterdam Schipol (connecting local flights with long-haul flights). Precisely what May’s government is trying to avoid.

The rising European challenge to Heathrow - Financial Times courtesy

The rising European challenge to Heathrow – Financial Times courtesy

Real estate is another major concern for both British government and Heathrow airport management. In case of a final ‘go’, Harmondsworth village – including its mid 11th century St Mary’s Church – has to be bought and razed with a net loss for the airport of £250m, spokeswoman said. Furthermore, house prices in the surroundings are likely to decline, contributing to the general slowdown of London house prices from Brexit referendum.

Surrounding population is understandably protesting against the increase of noise deriving from a potential third runway. Government promptly stated out three solutions. First, incentives to airliners to use noise-reduction planes. Second, a six-and-a-half hours’ ban will be implemented on scheduled night flights. Last, a sum of £700m will be paid to householders for noise insulation.

Government is on a far trickier ground when it comes to environmental concerns. Government has been warned more than once from UK’s highest court to take immediate action to cut nitrogen dioxide emissions (NO2), and reassurances from airport management to increase number of electric cars within the airport aprons do not impress ‘no’ campaigners.

So far, hints suggest that May’s approval for the third runway is just a signal stating ‘UK is still open for business’, making a fuss for public opinion. It looks like St Paul Cathedral’s view of the sky is safe. At least for the next few years.


Matteo Negro, graduate in Business Administration and Management from Bocconi University, is now enrolled in the Master of Science in Management at Bocconi. His interests range from infrastructures, transport management and private-public partnerships.

Video courtesy, The Guardian. Graph courtesy, Financial Times.

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