London’s Heathrow Struggles to Remain Relevant

London’s Heathrow Struggles to Remain Relevant

éClat Law is pleased to welcome guest blogger Vani Munisami.  Vani did her Bachelor of Laws at King’s College London and completed her Masters in International Law and Commercial Law at University College London. Admitted to the Bar of England and Wales, she has dabbled in various fields including Corporate, Employment and Arbitration. Her profound passion for Aviation and Space took her to McGill University where she is currently an LLM Candidate at the University’s Institute of Air and Space Law.   

Heathrow Airport is the busiest airport in Europe in terms of passenger traffic.  It transports more than 74 million passengers every year with flights taking off or landing every 45 seconds. Operating at full capacity, it is often said that “if Heathrow sneezes, the rest of Europe catches a cold.”  Currently Europe’s biggest aviation hub, Heathrow nevertheless faces direct and aggressive competition from other main hubs in Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Istanbul.  Moreover, important long-haul routes are increasingly being set up in Middle Eastern hubs.  Thus, it is perhaps no great surprise that Heathrow switched places with Dubai Airport in the world airport traffic rankings.  In 2014, Heathrow was ranked 3rd and Dubai 6th.  In just one year, those numbers were reversed.

While Heathrow may never regain its passenger traffic ascendancy over Dubai Airport, it is vital to the UK economy and crucial to a metropolitan city like London that steps be taken to improve its aviation connectivity.  It may shock you to realize that Heathrow operates as the 6th largest airport in the world by passenger traffic volume with only two runways.  By way of comparison, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has five runways, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Orlando International Airport each have four runways, and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has a whopping eight runways.  It’s really rather shocking that Heathrow has managed to accommodate its traffic to date!

In plain terms, the airport needs another runway just so it can remain a competitive hub – and so it can continue to attract business, investment and tourists.  If nothing else, a new runway at Heathrow is needed by 2030 if only to meet surging aviation demands. A new runway will enable Heathrow to connect passengers to a number of new destinations, particularly focusing on emerging economies such as India, China, South-East Asia, important African cities such as Mombassa and Durban and previously unattainable locations in North America, such as Portland and San Antonio, and South America such as Santiago in Chile and Lima in Peru.

An expansion will also enable Heathrow to serve local destinations more efficiently. It will connect the rest of the UK via feeder traffic from other ‘spokes’ which are airports in the geographic network of the British territory. These include places like Jersey and Newquay in the South West, Liverpool in the West, Humberside in the East and Inverness in Northern Scotland. A better local transport network in the UK will help promote effective internal growth with both investment and trade opportunities.  By the numbers, the British government estimates that a new runway would “bring economic benefits . . . to the wider economy worth up to” $77 billion.

With this in mind, a new runway seems like the quintessential “no-brainer.”  Yet the proposed introduction of a new runway at Heathrow has been debated since 1968.  Finally, on October 25, 2016, the British Government announced that it would approve  a third runway.  But that’s not the end of the story:  A “public consultation” will held to assess “the effects of airport expansion before the government makes a final decision.”  Another vote will be take place in the winter of 2017-18.  Even if there are no delays, construction is not likely to begin until 2020 or 2021.  With many high-profile British politicians still strongly opposed to the additional runway, it promises to be a turbulent year for Heathrow planners.  Keep your seatbelts on!