Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Fri October 28 2016

Heathrow’s Third Runway: What Does It Mean For Travel?

Airlines & Airports Paul Thompson October 28, 2016

Heathrow’s Third Runway: What Does It Mean For Travel?

Photo courtesy of Heathrow Airport

London Heathrow is the epicenter of travel and commerce in Europe. Once the world’s busiest airport for international passengers, growth at Heathrow has been stifled by limitations on the number of planes its two runways can handle. But finally, after years of debate, the British government announced a plan that will allow growth.

Over the decades of debate, three plans were pitched and evaluated. In one plan, Heathrow would get a third runway. In another plan, Gatwick Airport would get a second runway. In a third plan, one of Heathrow’s existing runways would be extended. Every major European airport has at least four runways.

On Tuesday, the government announced it would support the plan for a third runway at Heathrow. What does this mean for travelers? The increased capacity for flights means that flights to new destinations could be offered. It also opens the door for increased competition on routes, which could mean lower airfares in some cases.

The plan also supports the construction of a massive new central terminal between the new runway and existing northernmost runway.  It would also house hotels and a business park. Train capacity to the airport would increase from eighteen to forty trains, moving up to 15,000 people each hour. The airport says the 19 billion-pound project would have a 64 billion-pound economic benefit over the next fourteen years, along with the creation of up to 77,000 jobs. The new runway would open in about ten years, and be able to add 260,000 flights a year, or a little over 700 flights per day.

This all sounds pretty good so far, right? To grow Heathrow’s footprint, hundreds of families will have to be displaced on the airport’s northwest side. It’s understandable why these people would oppose the project. Britain has eminent domain laws like the U.S. does. In Chicago, eminent domain was invoked for a recent expansion of O’Hare Airport. It remains to be seen how those near Heathrow who lose their homes or businesses would be compensated, if all goes as planned.

Airports will always have the nearby residents who complain about noise, but when you consider the noise footprint of modern jets versus the early Boeing 707s that PanAm flew to Heathrow, planes have actually grown significantly more quiet. In light of noise complaints, the airport has pledged 700 million pounds to pay for the sound insulation of nearby homes.

It’s entirely plausible that the third runway may never be built as planned. In order to set the plan in motion, it will be put to vote by Parliament. That step is expected to take about a year, and it is sure to face plenty of hurdles along the way. Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has voiced opposition to the expansion of Heathrow in the past, although she has since tried to erase her old point of view.

The choice to expand Heathrow does make sense over adding a runway at Gatwick. Heathrow is closer to central London, which makes it more accessible and desirable for passengers. The importance of the freight hub at Heathrow cannot be overstated either. The global shipping companies and Britain’s import/export businesses would not want to divide their focus between two airports.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that so many lives will face upheaval in the name of progress, but in the opinion of this writer, the Heathrow third runway decision was the best. The airport may never regain its crown of international passenger volume from Dubai, but this is the decision that will be the greatest benefit for the British economy and all who wish to fly to or from London.