Does UK Still Need A Third Runway At London Heathrow Airport?

Air traffic control tower
Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

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With COVID-19 causing a collapse in demand for air travel, does Great Britain still need a third runway at London Heathrow or a second one at London Gatwick?

Aviation Week’s London Bureau Chief Tony Osborne responds:

Full disclosure: As London bureau chief, a homeowner in London and someone who travels regularly, I would argue “yes” to building a third runway at Heathrow. And although the second runway option for Gatwick was discarded in favor of Heathrow’s third runway, why not add capacity at Gatwick too?

The COVID-19 crisis is temporary. Passenger demand will return, and with vaccinations beginning in the UK, it could come back quicker than expected. Paul Everitt, the CEO of UK aerospace trade organization ADS, told journalists in July that “the fundamental drivers for growth in the civil aviation market are still there,” which include a growing population, an increasingly wealthy middle class and a political drive in many countries around the world for international trade.   

No matter how bad the downturn is now, the coronavirus pandemic is a blip—albeit a sizable one. If a government wanted to create jobs and investment to stave off the economic effects of the downturn, it could be argued that major infrastructure projects such as building runways would be one way of kick-starting the economy. And with Britain leaving the EU—regardless of whether you think that is a good thing or utterly disastrous—the UK needs to take a more global view. The nation will certainly need to build more international connections to its hub airport than what is possible with the capacity constraints of two-runway facilities.

The green lobby will rightly have a strong say in what happens next. There are calls for all of us to reexamine how we live, take holidays, travel for work etc. Air travel is becoming greener, but it will still need runways.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.