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Can we really expand Heathrow Airport?

Updated on July 5, 2017

Plans to expand Heathrow have been debated for over a decade, delaying a potential increase in the UK’s economy and increased frequency of flights. In June 2001 Labour ministers were said to be seriously considering building a third runway at the west London airport, “to relieve increasing congestion in London and the South-east and to prevent the airport from losing its premier status as Europe's leading international airport” (Harper, 2001).

According to a new study by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), building a new runway at Heathrow would add about £30bn to the UK’s economy. Taking into consideration a number of scenarios including the frequency of flights to current international destinations and flights to new international destinations, the immediate-term economic impact of increasing capacity at Heathrow would deliver between £8.6bn and £12.8bn in increased productivity; approximately 58% of which would apply to outside of London.

Table 1 - Economic impact of additional capacity at Heathrow – sensitivity test results (£m, present value, over 60 years) (Buchanan, Buchanan, & Siraut, 2009)
Table 1 - Economic impact of additional capacity at Heathrow – sensitivity test results (£m, present value, over 60 years) (Buchanan, Buchanan, & Siraut, 2009)

The study also states that approximately £20bn would be added to the economy in longer-term, wider economic benefits. This includes an increase in productivity due to more frequent flights and shorter waiting times for transfer flights outside of the UK, and an increase in direct and indirect employment which - according to the Department for Transport (DfT) - would result in an additional 10,000 jobs at the airport (Transport, 2009).

However, oppositions are concerned about the increase in noise and air pollution that residents living around the airport would have to endure, as well as the vast amount of people who would be rendered homeless as a result of making room for the terminal and runway. Plans for a third runway at Heathrow call for the destruction of around 700 homes at the minimum, not including properties that would need to be destroyed for access roads and road widening. In a House of Commons debate in December 2007, John McDonnell argued that "4,000 homes could be affected either by demolition or by being rendered unliveable" (Parliament, 2007).

According to an analysis carried out by Travel for London and the CAA, an additional runway would expose more than 1.1 million people to noise in excess of 55dB annually on an average 24/7 basis, compared to 725,100 people today (CAA & ERCD, 2014). The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers any noise above a level of 50dB to be problematic.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) stated in a study that "even without a third runway areas around Heathrow are already in breach of European Union (EU) air quality limits" (GLA, 2010). Air pollution can cause significant health problems to those exposed for long periods of time, aggravating respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and even contributing to premature death.

It seems obvious that expanding Heathrow airport would be impractical and extremely damaging to residents living close to the runway. It would therefore be more realistic to consider other areas of the UK which may be suitable to not necessarily be expanded, but be used to distribute some of the flights from Heathrow to relieve the congestion and knock-on delays caused by the capacity at which the airport is working.

What do you think?

Should the expansion of Heathrow go ahead?

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Buchanan, P., Buchanan, C., & Siraut, J. (2009). Economic Impats of Hub Airports. London: British Chambers of Commerce.

CAA, & ERCD. (2014). Aviation Noise Modelling: Heathrow Options. London: CAA.

GLA. (2010). Flights of Fancy: Can an expanded Heathrow meet its environmental targets? London: Greater London Authority.

Harper, K. (2001, June 25). Heathrow in line for third runway. Retrieved 2015, from The Guardian:

Parliament. (2007, December 12). Column 104WH: Heathrow Expansion. Retrieved from

Transport, G. B. (2009). Adding capacity at Heathrow Airport: Impact Assessment. London: Department for Transport.

WHO. (2011). Burden of disease from environmental noise: Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe. UN City: WHO Regional Office for Europe.


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