The UK’s eight biggest airports plan to fly around 150 million more passengers a year, the equivalent of 300,000 extra jumbo jets, in a bid that climate targets will not deter the industry.
A Financial Times analysis of their expansion projects found that combined they would be able to handle 387 million passengers annually, a more than 60 percent increase on the 240 million travelers who used the airport in 2019.
The figures show how airports are planning for a period of robust growth despite significant financial losses during the pandemic. They also show how the industry believes variable growth is still possible in the lead-up to the deadline for the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.
More than a third of the growth will come from London Heathrow’s proposed megaproject to build a third runway. This will increase passenger capacity at the UK’s biggest airport to 142mn a year, compared with the 81mn it handled in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The airport paused planning in 2020 as Covid-19 shut down the global aviation sector but indicated last month that it would soon resume.
Its chief executive John Holland Kay 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 an internal review, which yet to be completed.
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 an extra 15 million passengers. Edinburgh completed work to increase its capacity to 20 million passengers in 2019.
Airport executives and investors said airports were looking to push growth plans because many in the industry believed it would be 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 supported new runways at Heathrow and other airports “making the best use” of existing infrastructure.
Industry executives argue that there is no reason to constrain expansion given that the industry has pledged to reach net zero by 2050. They also point to rapid advances in quieter aircraft to help alleviate local concerns about noise pollution.
This is backed up by a Department for Transport paper on decarbonising aviation published last year which said airport expansion is possible within the government’s climate change commitments as new technologies such as cleaner fuels will help the aviation industry reach net zero by 2050.
But the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate advisers, has warned that if annual passenger numbers are to increase by more than 25 percent from 2018 levels by 2050, emissions savings will need to come from other sectors to meet legal carbon targets.
Environmental groups question whether any growth in aviation is compatible with reducing carbon emissions, pointing to significant technical and financial hurdles standing in the way of decarbonizing the industry.
They argue that the government needs a new overarching strategy to monitor the overall rate of airport expansion and benchmark the overall picture against climate commitments.
Alex Chapman, senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank opposed to the expansion, said current government policy “effectively allows unlimited growth in the sector”.
The 2018 Airport Policy Framework, which guides planning decisions, states that an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to any expansion project should not have a “material impact on the government’s ability to meet carbon reduction targets”.
But Alastair 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 considered in isolation and its local impact assessed. . “This planning system . . . is not designed for the discussions we are having now,” he added.
Chapman called on ministers to “take responsibility and set tough, enforceable targets”.
The government said the UK has “the world’s most ambitious strategy to reduce aviation emissions without impacting this vital sector, and we support airport expansion where it can deliver on our environmental responsibilities”.
Bernard Lovell, a consultant and former senior executive at London City and Southend Airport, said airports were “very serious” about cutting their emissions.
He said that sectors with extremely high fixed costs, from security to air traffic control, required sustained growth. “You literally have a lot of outgoing expenses to open the front door, but [as passenger numbers rise] Airports can then become quite profitable as costs do not rise at the same rate,” he added.
Some smaller airports have recently managed to push through expansion plans, including Bristol which last year got permission to increase its limit on passengers from 10mn to 12mn.
But not all have been successful, with smaller Leeds Bradford Airport scrapping plans for a new terminal in 2022 after the government intervened and overturned a local council’s decision to approve the application, citing concerns about the impact on the greenbelt and the wider impact of climate change.
The issue is likely to move back up the political agenda later this year if, as expected, Heathrow submits its plans for a third runway. Holland-Kaye stressed that the pandemic had strengthened the case for increasing the size of the UK’s main hub airports, after a patchwork of border restrictions to UK passengers from other major European hubs such as 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