New dawn for third runway at Heathrow?

posted on 15th June 2021
New dawn for third runway at Heathrow?

Heathrow Airport’s CEO John Holland-Kaye is again calling for capacity growth as Brexit becomes the latest issue to highlight the need for more space

The boss of Heathrow Airport is again calling for an increase in capacity, inevitably with the construction of a third runway, at the facility in order to help the UK achieve its post-Brexit aims.

The saga of Heathrow’s potential growth is a long-running one, with arguments for the construction of the runway both loud and dating back to the 1990s. Most recently in December 2020, the UK’s Supreme Court overturned a previous ruling by the Court of Appeal blocking the third runway, meaning the arguments over the project can resume.

Speaking at an online CAPA Live event in June, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye again argues that without the additional capacity afforded by the new runway, the UK’s post-Brexit future would be an uncertain one.

He says: “The UK has left the EU. We’re trying to carve a role as a global trading nation independently, and we need to have a leading hub airport here in the UK to provide the trade links and supply lines that the country will need for the future.

“We need to be as well connected to China and India as we are to the US; in fact, we need more connections to US if we are to play a role right at the heart of the global economy, and we can only do that with more capacity here at Heathrow.”

Holland-Kaye adds there is demand for the extra capacity from both airlines and travellers and it would be best for the work required to start as soon as possible in preparation for when passengers return in any volume.

And the airport needs a lot of passengers to return. As a result of the UK-government lockdown, which essentially put the brakes on all but the most essential travel and even banned travel to some countries, so Heathrow’s traffic numbers have fallen through the floor.

The airport has gone from handling about 1,400 flights a day to 400, while passenger numbers have dropped by about 90 per cent from 225,000 on a daily basis to 20,000.

Juggling slots
In the meantime, Holland-Kaye believes the best way to manage Heathrow’s capacity is through the better use of the slots that are already available and allocated to airlines.

He admits that the current slot waiver programme, which has meant airlines aren’t forced to use their allocation or hand them back as they would be in normal times, has been a helpful tool for airlines during the Covid-19 pandemic and is likely to be extended into the forthcoming winter season.

But he adds airlines could be quicker to return slots they no longer want to the airport to help it deal with the ongoing capacity constraints.
Holland-Kaye says: “I would like to see airlines handing back slots earlier so that we can use them and make the most of the capacity we have here, because there is demand for people to be able to fly to markets that aren’t currently served.”

Should airlines start giving up their slots in serious numbers, Holland-Kaye adds it could free enough capacity to tempt a sizeable LCC like easyJet to start operating out of Heathrow.

He says: “The fact that LCCs want to come into Heathrow as it is says a lot about the value that we bring to airlines.”

Nor does he believe it would be too difficult a job to change how Heathrow operates to accommodate LCCs, saying the airport has just spent 20 years accommodating the giant Airbus A380 on behalf of various airlines.

Holland-Kaye says: “If airlines are looking for more remote-served services, rather than the pier service which historically airlines have wanted to have at Heathrow, then there are ways we can meet that demand, but we don’t have enough demand yet to significantly change the model.”

Carrying cargo
Finally, like all airport bosses operating in the Covid-19 pandemic, Holland-Kaye has been very grateful for the continuing lifeline that cargo has offered, albeit not as much as at some other European airports.

He says following the reduction in belly space after airlines pulled their flights, the amount of cargo handled by Heathrow fell by a quarter compared to 2019 levels.

Despite this, he adds: “Heathrow is the UK’s biggest port by value of any kind of port, not just of aviation.”

However, a drop of a quarter in cargo volumes at the airport is considerable and causes Holland-Kaye to worry that in the wake of Brexit, the UK’s economy is again being held back at a deeply unhelpful time.

He says: “This is a real issue for the UK economy. That cargo represents UK exports getting around the world and imports coming in here to feed our supply chain.

“Until we see those cargo routes re-established and the passenger routes in particular that support them, then the UK economy is going to be held back.”
Of course it’s fair to say these routes could come back even more strongly with the addition of a third runway which takes us full circle back to the airport’s biggest issue before 2020 began.
But how nice to think back to a time before the Covid-19 pandemic struck and visited so much tragedy upon humans in every corner of the globe.