Here's why London's airports need more runway capacity

A plane comes in to land over London's Heathrow airport. Image: Getty/Peter Macdiarmid.

Britain’s international connectivity has long played an important role in facilitating trade with the rest of the globe and in attracting new business. By value, 40 per cent of our exports go by air; and we trade up to 20 times more with those countries where we have a direct air link.

For more than three centuries, and up until very recently, we played host to the world’s busiest port or airport. Yet this is now part of our history: earlier this year, Dubai International overtook Heathrow to become the world’s busiest international airport.

Despite our past success the fact is, here in the UK, we face an increasingly big problem with our airport infrastructure. Heathrow, our only international hub airport, has already been full for a decade; Gatwick, our second busiest, is now full at peak times and will be completely full by 2020. All of London’s airports are forecast to be full by 2030, if not before.

So how did the situation get this bad? The truth is we haven’t built a new full-length runway in London and the South East since 1945. Successive generations of politicians and governments of all parties have deferred a decision on airport expansion for around 70 years.

As a result, our European rivals are now racing ahead. Paris for example already has 50 per cent more flights to China, a key growth economy. This is hardly surprising when you consider that Charles De Gaulle airport has four runways: Heathrow only has two, and Gatwick just one.

Image: KPMG.

And it’s not just France that has acompetitive edge over us. Frankfurt also has four runways, whilst Amsterdam Schiphol has six. Our competitors got on and upgraded their airport infrastructure years ago. Whilst looking further to the future, by 2036, the world’s major cities plan to have built over 50 new runways globally. Here we currently have no plans.

This is why in 2012, two years after it cancelled the third runway at Heathrow, the Government decided the best way to address the issue was to establish the Airports Commission, and appointed the economist Sir Howard Davies to lead its work. The idea was that the government would call on an independent panel of experts to make recommendations based on a robust evidence-base and rigorous process, in an effort to break decades of political deadlock.

After nearly three years of extensive debate and consultation, in the coming weeks the Commission will make its final recommendation on whether the green light should be given for an expanded Gatwick or Heathrow.

Even before it makes its final recommendation, the Airports Commission has concluded that Heathrow expansion could deliver up to £214bn in economic benefit, and Gatwick expansion up to £127bn. So the economic prize on offer is not insignificant, particularly for a country whose trade gap recently reached a four-year high.

Given the major boost it would give the UK’s economy, the increasing urgency of the situation and the sheer amount of time the Commission has already spent examining the issue, you would have thought that the decision to build a new runway would now be the number one infrastructure priority for the new government. Yet there have been recent media reports that airport expansion could face further dither and delay: the government says it may not give its formal response to the Airports Commission’s final recommendations until the end of the year, or possibly early next. From a business point of view this is unacceptable – a decision should have been taken years ago. It’s time for the political procrastination to stop and for the UK’s political leaders to take bold and swift action to address the problem.

Now more than ever, once the Airports Commission does publish its Final Report, we need a decision that is wholly based on the long-term national interest, not short-term political considerations. After all this time debating the issue, the time has surely come for the government to just get on with it.

Gavin Hayes is director of Let Britain Fly, the pro-airport expansion campaign initiated by London First.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.