OPINION: The case for Gatwick Airport’s second runway

OPINION: The case for Gatwick Airport's second runway
The economic and environmental considerations will determine the viability of Gatwick's expansion plans, writes Ivan Stevenson (Image credit: Nigel Wiggins/Adobe Stock)

In 2018 after years of public and political debate, the UK government backed the development of a third runway at London Heathrow. Since then, progress has been caught up in ongoing legal issues and of course the pandemic – and all that has happened since continues to create further complications.

Over recent months the issue of airport expansion has gained new impetus with Gatwick revealing plans to fully operationalise its second runway that are currently going through planning scrutiny.

Each year my colleagues and I have the privilege of supervising final year student projects, and this year one of my students, Daniel Stephens, undertook a review of the case for further expansion at Gatwick. Gatwick’s proposal is to move what is currently its secondary runway, 12 meters to the north and undertake some further infrastructure development to support growth.

The runway development is the most significant part of the proposal as it would enable Gatwick to become a functional dual runway airport, although it is important to note that the proposal would offer less additional capacity than an entirely new runway.

As part of the London multi airport system, Gatwick serves a primarily leisure focused market with easyJet, TUI and British Airways (BA) being their primary airline customers. BA long haul services from Gatwick include leisure services or others with a low volume of connecting traffic, while short haul services are operated by BA Euroflyer, a new lower cost subsidiary.

There are subtle differences in the catchment areas of the various London airports, reflecting both their geography and target markets, with Heathrow being the notable differentiator, attracting traffic from across the UK and beyond, highlighting its position as the UK’s primary hub.

During the debate that led to the initial approval to expand Heathrow, regional airport leaders at Birmingham and Manchester supported Gatwick expansion as they felt expansion at Heathrow would threaten their own growth. The case for Gatwick expansion centres on a perceived need for more capacity in the South East to ensure more effective competition with other European hubs. As Heathrow operates very close to its maximum capacity, some argue that expanding Gatwick would enable London to boast two international hub airports.

Building any case for infrastructure development is more of an art than a science. The long periods of time it takes to realise and operationalise plans alongside the obvious uncertainty in the world from day to day, mean even the best plans can be destroyed overnight.

While post-pandemic passenger demand appears to have rebounded broadly to pre-Covid levels, the global, European and UK operating environments continue to evolve in the face of other challenges. The key debates for consideration in most cases centre around the economic and environmental impact, with the wider social impact broadly evaluated on the economic opportunity created by jobs and the health implications caused by emissions and noise.

Beyond the investment cost, expansion would hopefully lead to an increase in traffic movements and hence jobs, but also an inevitable increase in aircraft noise and emissions. Stephens observes that Gatwick’s environmental analysis is heavily focused on the use of emerging technologies to mitigate the negative impact of the increase in movements.

However, he also observes that the operationalisation of the second runway would reduce holding times during the airport’s operational peaks, thereby reducing some emissions and, unlike in some other cases, there appears to be generally positive and consistent support from the local community.

The question ultimately comes down to whether there really is a need. Gatwick sees higher traffic in summer than winter, reflecting its leisure focus – unlike Heathrow which remains fairly constant year round.

For winter 2017, Gatwick operated at 50 movements per hour (close to maximum current runway capacity) on its single runway for only 6 per cent of the time. More consideration may need to be given to how long it would take Gatwick to reach a level of demand that would facilitate greater use of its second runway on a regular basis.

Airports in the UK are privatised businesses while in other countries, for example Spain, they remain nationally owned, albeit operated via AENA, a state owned private company, which also happens to operate a number of airports internationally.

As one of the most tourism dependent markets in the world, Spain has a number of busy and capacity restricted airports. But it is also infamous for a number of ‘white elephant’ ghost airports that have never been fully operationalised such as Cuidad and Castellon.

While low-cost carriers (LCCs) have brought life to many secondary airports, the UK has interesting examples such as Manston and Doncaster where viability and use are the subject of ongoing evaluation. The arguable difference between the UK and Spain is that financial risk for airport growth is spread differently between the passenger and taxpayer and the government and business owner or operator.

In the case of Gatwick, its private owners want to build opportunity for improved market positioning, revenue growth and increased profitability. While currently seeing peak operational pressure, the fact remains that Gatwick still has capacity whereas Heathrow is very limited at all times.

The case for increasing capacity at Gatwick is based on improving existing critical infrastructure rather than entirely new development – and the immediate environmental impact of this will clearly be less than that required by the development of a further runway at Heathrow.

Stephens’ conclusion is that the proposal to expand Gatwick should be put on hold. His argument, with which I broadly agree, is insightful. He argues that the decision centres on which priority is deemed more important: the economic or the environmental.

Given the current focus on climate change and the lack of a clear cut economic case, he argues that the plan should be put on hold until a much clearer pathway to sustainable growth emerges. He further outlines that Gatwick should instead focus on looking at where more efficiency could be built into its existing operations.

Ultimately, planning decisions are made on a balance of factors, but if policy and the right conditions emerged to support adequate growth of appropriate demand at Gatwick, then the case may well be made.

However, given the environmental challenges presented by any case for airport expansion, then arguably the time is now to make clear how seriously we take the environmental crisis and aviation’s wider contribution, or not.