Court Blocks Heathrow Third Runway On Environmental Grounds

Filed Under: Aviation

In theory Heathrow Airport is supposed to get a third runway eventually, and now the project has hit yet another roadblock. Could this finally be the end of any plans for a third runway?

Appeal court blocks Heathrow third runway

The London Court of Appeal has blocked the plans for Heathrow’s third runway on environmental grounds.

According to the court, the UK government had failed to take into account the impact that a third Heathrow runway would have under Britain’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, pushing for countries to reduce carbon emissions and reduce global warming below 2C by the end of the century.

As was written in the ruling:

“We have not found that a national policy statement supporting this project is necessarily incompatible with the United Kingdom’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change under the Paris Agreement, or with any other policy the Government may adopt or international obligation it may undertake.

The Paris Agreement ought to have been taken into account by the Secretary of State… and an explanation given as to how it was taken into account, but it was not.”

In other words, the court isn’t ruling on the merits of a third runway as such, and they’re not ruling it out, but they’re saying that the proposal didn’t sufficiently take into account the environmental impacts.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan celebrated the decision on Twitter:

“We won! Today we blocked the Tory government plans to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Today’s judgment is a major victory for all Londoners who are passionate about tackling the climate emergency and cleaning up our air.”

While Heathrow officials say they will appeal the decision at the Supreme Court, that likely won’t get them all that far.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long been opposed to the third runway, going so far as to say that he would lie down in front of bulldozers to stop the work. Transport Secretary Grant Schapps has already confirmed in a Tweet that the government won’t be appealing today’s decision:

“Airport expansion is core to boosting global connectivity. We also take seriously our commitment to the environment. This Govt won’t appeal today’s judgement given our manifesto makes clear any #Heathrow expansion will be industry led.”

Virgin Atlantic is strongly in favor of a Heathrow third runway

The status of Heathrow’s third runway prior to this

For a bit of context on how this was all looking prior to this court ruling, in late 2016, the government of the UK “recommended” that Heathrow receive a third runway, and then in mid 2018 it was formally approved by the UK Parliament, following the UK Transport Secretary preparing a bill.

With that plan, the third runway would have been ready for operation by 2026 at the earliest.

Then in late 2019 it was announced that the project was delayed by at least 12 months, with a new projected completion date of 2028-2029 at the earliest. This came after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rejected Heathrow’s plan to increase spending for the project from £650 million to £2.4 billion, prior to even getting planning consent.

British Airways is strongly opposed to a Heathrow third runway

Bottom line

I’d be shocked if a third runway is ever built at Heathrow. This was already questionable before today’s ruling, and the decision today adds yet another roadblock.

British Airways is surely thrilled by this (they like Heathrow being heavily slot restricted because of their market share), while just about all other airlines (and in particular Virgin Atlantic) won’t be happy about this.

What do you put the odds at of a Heathrow third runway ever opening?

  1. If it isn’t done for economic reasons, great, but to deny it based on the fallacy of a “climate crisis” and the nonsensical “Paris agreement”, is lunacy.

  2. Heathrow developers are short-sighted. Major airports in North America have at least 4 runways, only 2 in Heathrow (and Heathrow handles much more flights than Denver, and Denver have 6 runways)

    Probably there might be a need to expand Gatwick instead.

  3. Good to see the environmental experts commenting on this. Too bad we never got to see (now PM) Johnson from following through on his pledge to “lay in front of the bulldozers with [the protesters]” in opposition to the 3rd runway. You’ll find our economy won’t be less competitive than our Western European neighbours. The French can dream all they want but as everyone well know, striking is a national pastime over there. Our industry can’t be as efficient as the Germans, that too is worth acknowledging. Our economy will get a healthy boost with the construction of HS2 and whatever trade deals the government has pledged to work on.

    I’ll quote what the leavers said to the remainers upon their victory: “we won, you lost. Get over it, snowflake”

  4. The strategy for successful airlines and aircraft manufacturers is clear: aggressive investment in technologies that are transformatively more efficient than current models.

    For example , the Airbus e-Fan X project but scaled up.

    Electric airplanes that hum quietly in and out of city centers without a huge carbon footprint is a recipe for the future of aviation; screeching fossil fuel powered aircraft will not be a successful strategy as near universal social pressure to reduce emissions builds.

  5. The environment is not helped by aircraft flying in endless holding patterns over LHR because there aren’t enough runways. Air traffic is driven by demand, not by available runway space. Building a third runway will make LHR run more smoothly but it won’t somehow create demand for new flights. Even if more flights come through LHR, that traffic would simply come at the expense of a different airport.

  6. Why is this a surprise.

    This is brought to you by the country that wanted Brexit.
    Or the seeds they planted in HK.

    Everyone outside sees it as dumb but those inside are too blind to realize it.

  7. I supported the third runway and think it should have gone ahead.

    An even better idea would be developing Stansted into the main London airport as its in space and offers better access to most of the UK. Its a shame that the 3 big London were forced out of shared ownership and therefore could not be looked at together.

    @Eskimo – quit the offensive comments and stereotypes

  8. @AndrewP
    It’s *brilliant* that BAA’s monopoly ownership of all 3 London airports was broken up.

    Gatwick has improved immeasurably under its new owners, having for years been starved of investment so that all the money could go to Heathrow.

    And Stansted has found a new role for itself as an LCC hub, whose terminal capacity is now about to double.

    Heathrow doesn’t need more runway capacity: it needs to make better use of what it’s got (eg, not operating large numbers of medium-sized planes to the same destination instead of smaller numbers of giant planes. The A380 was ideal for LHR: so why do BA-AA send smaller planes to JFK multiple times a day, some with departures separated by only 10 minutes? Yes, they need multiple frequencies. No, no-one needs two planes scheduled to depart just ten minutes apart).

    Frankly, Heathrow is such a mess that everyone would be better off if transfers were discouraged. ~30% of all LHR pax are transferring, not visiting the UK. Why can’t they use other “emptier” airports instead of Heathrow? Which would reduce demand, leading to reduced flights.

  9. If only the British were as good at expanding airports as they are at producing renderings of expanded airports… I’ve been seeing lovely drawings and schematics of a third Heathrow runway my entire life, and I’m 39.

    Propose rearranging a few dozen acres of warehouses and woodland to add a third runway and the UK’s bottomless population of professional moaners close their minds. Meanwhile the planes spin around above the four holding points in metro London spewing out emissions and the same crowd say that’s just dandy.

    The UK will never see significant infrastructure investment again. Just patches on patches on patches made in the name of sustainability, all while the population continues to grow and becomes increasingly centered on urban areas. Infrastructure planning in the US looks revolutionary by comparison.

  10. Thank you @Doug.

    This is not an environmental issue, it is an economic issue to maintain control. I dare you to search FlightAware and tell me how many flights each day into LHR don’t go into some sort of holding pattern = requiring every airline to carry and burn more fuel. If there was more capacity to land (ATL has 5, DEN has 6, ORD has 7 runways) we wouldn’t have these issues. Whats the problem with a 3rd runway for Europes busiest airport?

    I bet if you were on one of those daily flights that have to divert to another airport for fuel, you’d vote for a 3rd runway.

  11. @JamesS
    “The UK will never see significant infrastructure investment again.”

    What are you talking about?!

    – Crossrail and the Thames super-sewer under construction (both were among the largest civil engineering projects in the world, let alone Europe);
    – HS2 (a high-speed rail line costing >£100 billion) just given the final go-ahead — work already underway;
    – Northern Rail (a high-ish speed rail line connecting Liverpool to Hull, through northern England’s biggest cities) in final planning, and certain to be given the go-ahead.

    But one runway at LHR blocked (temporarily?) and you claim the UK will never build anything again?!

  12. @The nice Paul
    If you are taking an actual look at all these projects, you will see that most of the money is not spent on building the infrastructure, but only to pay ‘consultants’ (aka politician’s best buddies), lots of lawyers, ‘environmental protection’ organizations that don’t actually care but just want to make a quick bug and providing entertainment for pensioners with too much free time.

  13. Willie Walsh will be bouncing off the ceiling right now. Not only is the Virgin Atlantic advance probably off the cards but there was another massive bonus for BA. easyJet were planning to start operations from Terminal 4 at Heathrow. easyJet short haul at Heathrow would’ve been a huge hit for BA on short haul routes. So with easyJet now having their route into fortress Heathrow blocked BA can breathe a massive sigh of relief.

    The reason why the British government isn’t doing anything to revoke this decision is because it sort of kills two birds with one stone. They can be seen to be doing something against climate change. This government has also planned to build hundreds of miles of new high speed rail networks so with Heathrow expansion off the table there’s now a few billion pounds allocated for infrastructure spending that can be sent to the new rail network.

  14. @The nice Paul
    You forgot Crossrail 2 under London, almost twice the length of Crossrail 1. Possibly the second biggest infrastructure project in Europe after HS2 (Another British project, we’re on a roll!) However the current government is extremely hostile towards London so it’s possible that Crossrail 2 will be dropped in order to build a gigantic white elephant vanity project bridge to Northern Ireland. I’m not a fan of this government. I think they’re attitude to Europe has been awful and their stupid belief that everyone will be happy after Brexit even if the economy takes a huge hit. They also hate London despite the fact that the UK economy is inextricably linked to London so they’ve decided to “rebalance” the economy they must invest in the North of England (good) and drag London down (very bad, many financial firms are leaving and if we get the expected no deal outcome they will all leave). But the one thing about this government I do like is their commitment to infrastructure development. They’re promising a lot and I’m glad that somebody has finally started to make progress.

    Please forgive me for my rant but it’s looking like I might have to leave my home and true love of London because all the jobs are moving to within the EU. I think I’m headed for Frankfurt in the summer.

  15. @Max
    “…most of the money is not spent on building the infrastructure…”

    I’m guessing you’re not an auditor, right?

    You’re partly right, in that a very significant part now goes on consultancy and consultation. The idea is that (1) you try to minimise unpleasant and expensive surprises emerging half-way through a project, because you’ve done all the investigation before work starts, so you know what you’re dealing with; and (2) this is a democracy (sort of), so everyone has a right to have a say.

    Things were much easier in, say, the early days of the railways, where peasants could be turned out of their homes with no compensation (or notice) so the line could be built as efficiently (ie, cheaply and profitably) as possible. But I don’t think it would have been much fun to be a peasant in those times.

  16. Agree with Nice Paul,

    Given the congestion/imitation at Heathrow they should require for destinations that are served more than X times per day, flights must be consolidated.

    Having a thousand frequencies from LHR to New York City is swell, but having two or three daily A380s should do the trick.

  17. Essentially the third runway is being blocked because of the additional carbon emissions that would come from the increase in flights to and from Heathrow? I consider myself an environmentalist, but that sounds ridiculous.

    While I would understand (although disagree in this case with) people who live near the airport who have concerns over things like noise pollution, traffic, etc, I’m really having a hard time wrapping my head around the people who simply oppose the runway on “climate” grounds. What are these activists hoping happens next? That the government ban or significantly increase taxes on flights under a certain distance to incentivize people to take trains? I actually wouldn’t be opposed to some form of such a tax–insofar as we’re talking about a wider carbon tax that applies across the economy and doesn’t single out air travel.

    The reality is that air travel right now is not one of the easier sectors of the economy to decarbonize. Sure, you can build out massive rail infrastructure to replace some shorter flights. Maybe you can try to incentivize businesses to meet via teleconference instead of in person. But until you electrify/hybridize airplanes, or figure out how to make them perform optimally on 100% biofuels, you’re not going to get very far.

    If you’re looking for places to cut emissions, you’re much better off starting with the power sector and personal vehicles, in my opinion. And if you want to try to fight to up funding for train infrastructure to replace short-distance flights, go for it. But Heathrow mostly handles international flights, most of which are too long to be replaced by any form of existing alternative transport.

  18. Wow, the Paris Climate Accord strikes again. Thank goodness President Trump was smart enough to withdraw from this lopsided fleecing of developed countries chasing the ghost of climate change. The climate is always changing. That’s how our planet has worked since the beginning of time and a third runway at LHR would do nothing either way to change the earth’s climate. Good news for British Airways’ investors, however.

  19. It is doubtful that any new transport aircraft capable runways will ever be built at major airports in Europe or the east or west coasts of the USA.

    British Airways might like dominating the LHR market (which they do) but they become increasingly less relevant in being able to compete in connecting markets. Given that Iberia is not competitive in connections to much of Europe, the loss of a future runway has significant implications for British Airways longer term.

  20. The NIMBYs have been fighting this for years. You see this happen all the time with airports. The airport’s there first. Heathrow’s been an airfield since the 1930s. Then people build nearby. Same people then are shocked(!) to know that noisy airplanes fly in and out of airports and complain.

    It’s sad that the whims of a small handful of NIMBYs are able interfere with the travel plans of millions per year.

  21. I agree with The Nice Paul.

    Boris is very pleased by this and will not appeal the decision. Building the new runway literally would have needed the London orbital motorway to be rerouted (with mega disruption) and was never going to be an ideal outcome anyway.

    Circa one third of passengers are on transfer flights. Other than landing fees, and anything they buy duty free in the terminal, it is hard to see what these passengers contribute to the London economy. If the airport is serious about the future then it needs to reinvent itself as primarily for origination traffic.

    The airport claims that connecting passengers enable a more diverse route network, but, there is more than enough of that in a city such as London to fill modern, smaller intercontinental jets at high yields. On current high frequency trunk routes the option to run bigger planes is also there.

    I believe that small, compact airports such as London City and Southend are increasingly the future and that mega hub airports are reaching a twilight. They exist as a legacy feature. Not something one would choose to create today. Smaller, fuel efficient long range planes are making them obsolete.

    Passengers simply do not want to change planes. Heathrow is congested because it has chosen to run at full capacity. With three runways it would have chosen to do the same and BA would simply have ramped up the number of connecting passengers they carry with cheap fare options to entice them. That might have helped BA (although the trade offs are not so clear) and the owners of Heathrow (clearer). Hard to see how it would have helped the wider London and UK economy.

  22. @Stephen – I can echo everything you wrote except: passengers, whether O&D or transfer, created more 70k employments and £3 billion gross value added every year. The economic impact of “landing fees, and anything they buy duty free in the terminal” is actually quite feasible.

  23. @MKLDH
    Only because of externalities; LHR doesn’t pay for the noise and air pollution it generates (with significant medical costs — which in the U.K. are tax-payer costs), nor do airlines pay tax on fuel, and if memory serves they’re exempt from the local sales tax, vat (at 20%) — though admittedly there are other taxes they pay which go some way to offsetting these.

    And most of us will have enjoyed those lovely views, flying in directly over Central London. There’s a teeny-tiny chance of a plane coming down over a London: but can you imagine the casualties and the costs if — when — one does?

  24. The London metropolitan region has a GDP of circa $1 trillion.

    Transfer passengers clearly generate something but it is less clear that the materiality of their contribution is so crucial. That is even before considering externalities that The nice Paul refers to.

    London clearly requires airport capacity to meet its own o and d needs but its comparative advantage as a city is not in the “hub” or “transfer” business. Airport capacity needs to be considered from that top down perspective.

    By the way, the court has not ruled out expansion of Heathrow either. It’s a procedural decision. The government could easily deal with it by inserting an appropriate climate impact assessment. But this gives a helpful cover story and one suspects they will just not do anything.

    I hate to say it as someone who flies in and out of London a lot but on balance I feel they are right. Boris has been consistent in his opposition to the third runway and ultimately this is a political decision.

  25. This is a disastrously short-sighted decision.

    London is desperately short of runway space, and there is no practical opportunity to change that in other locations. The fantasy of a a new “mega-hub” in the Thames estuary is dead, and the only practical solution was to expand Heathrow.

    @The nice Paul, normally I agree with your views here but in this case I don’t buy your logic… better slot usage would certainly help but people expect some redundancy as well – an airport and an air traffic system able to withstand normal weather events without massive cascading delays – precisely what London lacks right now. … BA is no doubt very happy but this is a shocking decision for a city that wants to maintain a global position post-Brexit.

    Ironically, I think London has in the recent past been one of the best cities for infrastructure investment overall (for many of the reasons you lost above) but this appalling court decision changes that.

    The logic of the court’s decision also appears to set a highly questionable precedent. If the standard of proof for all future infrastructure projects is to be for the government to establish total carbon neutrality they should halt HS2 today, and in fact virtually all current and proposed projects – I fail to understand how any of them could be “proven” to meet that standard.

  26. @Kerry
    The point of my original post was that London (sic — not just LHR) is *not* short of runway capacity.

    London already has spare capacity, especially at Stansted (which also has one of the longest runways in the UK).

    LHR doesn’t have much spare capacity, but that’s because it doesn’t optimise what it currently has. I have already given the example of BA and AA sending two medium-sized planes to JFK with departure times of just 10 minutes apart. Why aren’t they sending a single A380, immediately freeing-up a pair of slots?

    And if capacity is so constrained, why aren’t landing fees calculated at a flat rate per plane? That would make it cheaper to operate massive planes, thus increasing overall passenger capacity. But by charging lower fees for smaller planes, LHR is simply encouraging more total movements, each of which consumes a pair of the slots that are, allegedly, in desperately short supply.

    The court’s decision was sensible. It has found the government hasn’t met the legal obligations it has freely imposed on itself — to determine whether or not a 3rd runway is compatible with the Paris Accord.

    The court has not banned a 3rd runway, nor has it prejudged what the outcome should be of the government assessing whether or not a 3rd runway is compatible. It has simply stated that the government is first obliged to do its homework properly.

    My guess is the new government doesn’t actually want a 3rd runway — hence it not appealing this decision further.

    HS2 (the planned north-south high speed railway line) is a different issue. Since the primary purpose of it is to achieve modal shift — getting us out of our individual cars and onto an electric railway — it is almost certain to reduce overall carbon emissions (especially since the UK has had some success in shifting electricity generation to relatively greener technologies). It does appear to be a bit over-specified in its current form (too high top speed; and far too many tunnels to placate Cotswold NIMBYs). But it is a very necessary piece of infrastructure. The LHR 3rd runway is not.

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