The UK’s eight biggest airports have plans to carry almost 150 million more passengers a year, the equivalent of 300,000 extra jumbo jets, in a bet that climate targets won’t slow the industry down.
A Financial Times analysis of their expansion projects found that, combined, they could handle 387 million passengers a year, an increase of more than 60% from the 240 million travelers who used the airports in 2019.
The figures highlight how airports are planning for a period of breakneck growth despite significant financial losses during the pandemic. They also demonstrate how the industry believes that transformational growth is still possible in the run up to the 2050 deadline for the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
More than a third of the growth would come from London Heathrow’s proposed mega-project to build a third runway. This would increase passenger capacity at the UK’s biggest airport to 142 million a year compared to the 81 million it handled in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The airport halted planning in 2020 when Covid-19 shut down the global aviation sector, but last month indicated it would resume soon.
Its chief executive, John Holland Kaye, told the FT in February that it was working “with the aim of restarting the planning process. . . We will share what our plans are later this year.” Any decision to proceed with the application is subject to internal review, which has not yet been completed.
The other projects are more modest in scale and range from Gatwick’s proposal to fly 30 million more passengers a year by bringing its emergency runway into regular use, to Manchester’s planned expansion of one of its terminals to handle 15 million. additional passengers. Edinburgh completed work to increase its capacity to 20 million passengers in 2019.
Airport executives and investors said the airports were looking to push growth plans because many in the industry believed it would only get more difficult in the future as environmental pressures increased.
Aviation, seen as a key driver of economic growth, accounts for 8 per cent of UK emissions and is difficult to decarbonise due to the challenges involved in finding viable green propulsion technology.
The UK’s most recent policy framework for airport expansion was published in 2018 and backed a new runway at Heathrow and other airports “making the best use” of existing infrastructure.
Industry executives argue there is no reason to block expansion given the industry has pledged to reach net zero by 2050. They also point to rapid advances in quieter aircraft to help assuage local concerns about noise pollution.
This is supported by a Department for Transport document on aviation decarbonisation released last year which said the airport expansion was possible within the government’s climate change commitments because new technologies such as cleaner fuels would help the aviation industry to reach net zero by 2050.
But the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate advisers, have warned that if annual passenger numbers increase by more than 25% from 2018 levels by 2050, emissions savings will need to come from other sectors to meet legislated carbon targets.
Environmental groups question whether any growth in flights is compatible with cutting carbon emissions, pointing to the significant technological and financial hurdles that stand in the way of decarbonising the industry.
They argue that the government needs a new overall strategy to monitor the overall rate of airport expansion and compare the aggregate picture with climate commitments.
Alex Chapman, a senior fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a think tank that opposes expansion, said government policy currently “effectively sanctions unlimited growth in the sector.”
The 2018 airport policy framework, which guides planning decisions, states that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by any expansion project must not have “a material impact on the government’s ability to meet its objectives.” of carbon reduction”.
But Alistair Watson, partner and head of planning and environment at law firm Taylor Wessing, said the planning system was “failing” due to a lack of national oversight, which meant each airport’s application was being considered in isolation. and was evaluated according to its local impact. “This planning system. . . it is not made for the debates that we now have to have,” he added.
Chapman called on ministers to “take responsibility and set strict, enforceable targets.”
The government said the UK had “one of the most ambitious strategies in the world to reduce aviation emissions without affecting this vital sector, and we support airport expansion where our environmental obligations can be met.”
Bernard Lavelle, a consultant and former senior executive at London City and Southend airports, said the airports were “very serious” about reducing their emissions.
He said continued growth was essential for the sector, which had extremely high fixed costs, ranging from security to air traffic control. “You have a lot of exit costs literally to open the front door, but [as passenger numbers rise] airports can become quite profitable because costs are not increasing at the same rate,” he added.
Some smaller airports have managed to push through expansion plans recently, including Bristol, which got permission to increase the passenger limit from 10 million to 12 million last year.
But not all have been successful, with the smaller Leeds Bradford airport scrapping plans for a new terminal in 2022 after the government stepped in and overturned the local council’s decision to approve the application, citing concerns about the effect on the green belt. and the broader impact on climate change.
The issue is likely to return to the top of the political agenda later this year if, as expected, Heathrow unveils its plans for the third runway. Holland-Kaye insisted the pandemic had strengthened the case for increasing the size of the UK’s main hub airport, after a patchwork of border restrictions cut off UK passengers from other big European hubs including Paris and Frankfurt.
“Everything we said about how it was the right thing to do has been validated,” he said.
Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson