Heathrow’s Problem

Featured Image: With an area of 1,214 ha (3,000 acres) and 80 million annual passengers, Heathrow Airport is the biggest and busiest airport in Europe.

Thursday, 13 June 2019, London, United Kingdom – Heathrow Airport, the primary international airport for London and major global hub airport, has a problem. Despite handling 80 million annual passengers last year, it only has two runways. For context, LAX has four runways. Rival European airports like Madrid Airport, or Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, also have four runways. Amsterdam Airport has six and Dallas-Fort Worth has seven. With just two runways at Heathrow, London’s international hub is just barely squeaking by. It continually suffers from overcrowding and delays, and a TripAdvisor poll rated it as the worst airport in the world.

When Heathrow began operations as a commercial airport in 1945, it had six runways. But as planes became bigger, louder, and faster, virtually all of them became too small to accommodate future air traffic. So four of the runways were demolished, being converted into taxiways and terminals, and the other two were extended to nearly 4 km long so that today’s massive jets can use them. At first, having only two runways was no problem. But as London ballooned into an international hub, Heathrow Airport is now the busiest airport in Europe and the seventh busiest airport on the planet. Planes spend ages flying around in circles waiting for one of the two runways to become available. The airport is operating at 98% capacity, and 80 million passengers use it every year despite Heathrow’s owners admitting it was only designed for 55 million passengers per year at most. Planes take off and land every 45 seconds, and if the slightest delay occurs, the domino effect can be seen for hours. Long story short, Heathrow Airport is struggling to stay functioning as an airport.


A plane flies low over London houses near Heathrow Airport.

At this point, you might be wondering: If Heathrow is outgrowing itself, why doesn’t it just expand? Why not just build a third runway? This brings us to one of the most complex and controversial plans in all of British politics (apart from Brexit, of course). Right now, in Britain, there is a fierce debate going on about building a third runway at Heathrow. The “Don’t expand Heathrow” campaign, backed by locals and environmental groups, cites the following reasons why expanding the airport would be a disaster:

  • An expanded Heathrow would be the largest producer of carbon dioxide in the UK. Expanding the airport would be extremely irresponsible during the climate crisis.
  • Building a third runway would destroy people’s homes, and would increase noise and air pollution for people living nearby, worsening their quality of life
  • Other solutions could solve the capacity problem, such as expanding London’s rival airports or building a new airport on the Thames Estuary.

Meanwhile, the “Do expand Heathrow” campaign, primarily backed by airlines, cites why expanding Heathrow is vital for Britain’s future:

  • Adding a third runway would increase capacity. It would allow more planes to take off, more passengers to use the airport, and it would put London back on the map as an international hub.
  • Expanding Heathrow would create jobs.
  • It would be a boost to the London economy.
  • It would prevent business being lost to rival airports in Europe.

Both campaigns have some very compelling arguments, which is why Heathrow expansion has been the subject of such fierce debate in British politics right now. So, what do you think? Should Heathrow be expanded or not? Let us know in the comments.

(This month, we’ll be doing three posts instead of two. We’ll do an extra post for the 15th about Pride Month, in addition to our regular post on the 30th. So check back regularly for updates).

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