Airports commission says Britain should build third Heathrow runway

After a three-year study, the Airports Commission selected a new runway at Heathrow over two other shortlisted options

Published: Updated:

Britain should build a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, a government-appointed commission into the country’s airport capacity said in a report that could cause a political headache for Prime Minister David Cameron.

After a three-year study, the Airports Commission selected a new runway at Heathrow over two other shortlisted options, arguing that it offered Britain the best way to add “urgently required” long-haul routes to new markets and boost the economy.

“Heathrow ... provides the greatest benefits for business passengers, freight operators and the broader economy,” the commission’s chairman, Howard Davies, said on Wednesday.

It is now up to the government to decide whether to accept the Heathrow option that Cameron, in 2009, said would not happen under his watch, “no ifs, no buts”.

The Heathrow recommendation was accompanied by a package of measures to limit the noise and environmental impact of a new runway, in an attempt to allay concerns that have prompted protest and political division.

Lawmakers broadly agree that southeast England needs a new runway to remain economically competitive, but building one near densely-populated West London is a politically toxic issue.

A previous expansion plan was scrapped in 2010, but the new proposal was described by the Airports Commission as “fundamentally different”, citing its more westerly location and accompanying conditions to ban night flights and a government pledge not to add more runways later.

Businesses and airlines had largely favored the expansion of Britain’s busiest airport Heathrow, which is operating at 98 percent capacity, over Gatwick.

Britain is already falling behind European rivals, argue businesses. Heathrow has two runways and Gatwick one, compared with four at Charles de Gaulle in Paris and six at Amsterdam’s Schiphol.

Responding to the Commission’s recommendation, Gatwick said it believed that it is still in the race.

“We are confident that when the Government makes that decision they will choose Gatwick as the only deliverable option,” Gatwick CEO Stewart Wingate said in a statement.

A number of high-profile Conservative politicians, including Mayor of London Boris Johnson, have opposed an additional runway at Heathrow.

Johnson called the Commission’s recommendation “disappointing” on twitter on Wednesday, adding that a third runway at Heathrow would “never” be built.

Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin said in a statement that he would consider the commission’s recommendation.

“As a nation we must be ambitious and forward looking. This is a once in a generation opportunity to answer a vital question,” he said.

Heathrow has estimated that building could start in 2020 and the new runway would be ready in 2025, but that could be held up by the government’s decision and tough planning laws.

Heathrow’s largest shareholder is Spanish infrastructure firm Ferrovial. Other partners include Qatar Holding, China Investment Corp and the Government of Singapore Investment Corp.