UK Government Approves Third Runway For Heathrow – But How Long Will It Take?

Filed Under: Aviation

London Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest dual runway airport, as well as one of the busiest airports in the world full-stop. This means the airport is heavily slot restricted, and when any landing/take off slots do become available, they are incredibly valuable, with Oman Air having recently paid $75 million for a slot pair that was offered for sale from Air France-KLM.

London Gatwick until last year held the title of the world’s busiest single runway airport, and also operates at capacity.

Both airports are bursting at the seams, and desperate to expand.

Because of these restrictions, for years there have been campaigns from both airports to build an additional runway – in Heathrow’s case a third runway, and for Gatwick, a second. Both airports want to increase capacity, but cannot do so if more planes cannot take off or land on their runways.

As an aviation enthusiast, it seemed obvious to me that both new runways should be built. The UK economy has been hit hard since the Brexit vote, and will continue to do so whatever happens when and if the UK leaves the EU. Investing in two massive infrastructure projects would have created hundreds of thousands of jobs, kept both airports happy, and shown Europe and the world that the UK was still ‘open for business.’


In October 2016, after a long period of public consultation, the UK Government made a decision, and announced that they would ‘recommend’ that Heathrow receive a third runway, and not Gatwick.

At the time, the British Transport Secretary said:

I am proud that after years of discussion and delay, this government is taking decisive action to secure the UK’s place in the global aviation market – securing jobs and business opportunities for the next decade and beyond.

A new runway at Heathrow will improve connectivity in the UK itself, and crucially boost our connections with the rest of the world, supporting exports, trade and job opportunities.

That was 18 months ago.

Heathrow Airport with new third runway (top left)


This week the UK Transport Secretary has taken another step forward in the third runway plan by preparing a bill to be put to the UK Parliament to officially approve the building of the third runway at Heathrow. It already has the support of the UK Government, but will need to receive a majority approval vote in the UK Parliament to proceed.

The same Transport Secretary has this week said:

Today I’m laying before parliament our final proposal for an airports national policy statement which signals our commitment to securing global connectivity, creating tens of thousands of local jobs and apprenticeships, and boosting our economy for future generations by expanding Heathrow airport.

As you can see from the below map, the third runway is planned for the Northwest corner of the airport, and will run parallel to the existing two runways.

Artists rendering of Heathrow with a new third runway (bottom-left)

Next steps

A formal bill will now be tabled for the UK Parliament to approve. If they do so, then construction can start within two years, and ‘should’ be ready to operate by 2028.

Several UK politicians have already said they will oppose the bill.

Even with three runways, this will only guarantee sufficient capacity until 2040.

Given that it has taken them 18 months just to go from recommendation to proposal, having the entire construction project completed in 10 years seems wildly optimistic, especially given the endless legal hurdles the project will no doubt face from:

  • local residents who will have their homes acquired so the runway can be built on their land
  • other local residents who moved near an airport but don’t like noise
  • environmentalists concerned about impact to local wildlife
  • possibly even British Airways, which actually doesn’t want the third runway to be built, given that one of the best things they have going for them is how many of the Heathrow slots they own

I would expect the legal hurdles to delay the project for many years. Anyone with an axe to grind will want to have their say.

The cost of the third runway seems to change every month, but it’s currently listed at about £14 billion. Like the timeline, I would expect costs to exceed budget significantly.

In the UK it’s a pretty controversial topic right now, with most people split into three camps:

  • those who want the third runway at Heathrow
  • those who want the second runway at Gatwick
  • those who oppose the development of either on numerous grounds (environmental, cost, inconvenience, NIMBYs, etc.)

I’ve even seen some commentators go as far as to suggest they should name the runway the ‘Prince George Memorial Runway’ because of the time it will take to build.

Other plans

There’s all sorts of grand plans for what will happen with Heathrow’s terminals when the third runway is completed, to match the expanded capacity. While Terminal 4 will probably remain because it’s ‘out of the way,’ Terminal 3 will likely be demolished (along with Terminal 1, which closed some years ago), to allow both Terminals 2 and 5 to expand their ‘toaster rack’ designs further.

From the artists impressions above, there could be potentially be 10 different terminal buildings. There has been talk of simply having a north and south check-in area hopefully with people movers to transport passengers between the ten terminal buildings.

Most of this hinges on the runway actually being built. As you might imagine, the logistics of demolishing existing terminals and building new terminal buildings, all smack-bang in the middle of one of the world’s busiest, fully working airports, will not be an easy or quick process.

Bottom line

This a significant step in the long process towards expanding Heathrow Airport. It’s a massive infrastructure project that will take years to complete even if the UK Parliament does approve it soon.

2028 seems very ambitious given the potential for objections and delays, but the sooner they get started the sooner it will be finished.

And it is long overdue. I think it will be built, it will just take a very long time.

Do you think Heathrow should build a third runway?

  1. LOL ten f’ing years for a runway. Beijing’s new airport was planned and built in less time

  2. Mumbai CSI (BOM) is the busiest 1 runway airport in the world (the 2nd runway isn’t used)
    Dubai Intl (DXB) is the busiest 2 runway airport in the world

  3. Well a shorter time than Berlin but given all the appeals , NIMBYs, etc. Until I see the first shovel of earth moved, perhaps 15 years

  4. @ Bruno – good pick up. I’ve doubled checked and BOM overtook LGW late last year. Many of the British media were unaware of this! I’ve updated the post – cheers.

  5. Will LHR still be as relevant and important as it is after Brexit?
    I wonder how the future will be.

  6. Given that 25% of passenger traffic is just transferring through LHR, I’d suggest ending that and – hey, Presto! – you don’t need to build another runway at what is a poorly located airport. The main impact would be on BA and the foreign conglomerate that owns the airport, not much on the wider UK economy.

    Alternatively, why not charge landing fees per plane rather than per passenger: incentivise airlines to operate fewer but larger planes. Why are there a couple of dozen 777s a day flying LHR-JFK, instead of half that number of A380s? London isn’t obliged to provide limitless capacity to suit the whims of airlines.

    And LHR is in the wrong place. There aren’t many places in the world that would tolerate a stream of widebodies descending on a flight path directly over a city of 10 million. Actually suggesting we should increase that traffic strikes me as insane.

  7. Give both LHR and LGW an additional runway
    Move all LGW long-haul flights to LHR
    Move all LHR short/medium-haul flights to LGW or LCY
    Build the HeathWick express train to move connected pax and baggage between airports within 30 min
    Move all low-cost flights at either airport to Luton or Stansted
    Move all cargo to Southend Airport

    Will this happen, no it’s not gonna happen but this is what should be and needs to be done.

  8. @ chub – Virgin Atlantic are not going anywhere. Wherever they move to within the Heathrow footprint I suspect they will build a pretty impressive Clubhouse that’s even larger than their current one given their increasingly close ties with Delta.

  9. My first thought (not being in the business) was, if they increase the number of slots by building a 3rd runway does that diminish the value of the existing slots. If so, does that mean the current owners of those slots will be against it?

    The part that always annoys me are the people who buy near an airport and then complain about the noise. When I lived in AZ some people near Luke Air Force base would complain about that stuff. Its been there since the 1940s and provides a number of jobs. Don’t buy near an airport and then complain about the noise.

  10. Well i’m sure the people who are asked to move will be offered nice amount for their home.
    Depends on the offer I guess.

    And I presume all the hotels on the bath road will be demolished, as it looks like that is where the new runway will be.

  11. @ rich – other than British Airways and perhaps Virgin Atlantic, almost all airlines that hold slots at Heathrow want more, especially if the price reduces considerably because of the third runway.

  12. There are going to be so many challenges to this that if it gets built at all, Prince George may be King before its actually in operation.

    I know LHR is congested (as is LGW). I suspect you could manage traffic better if there were better transport links to/from Gatwick as well as between the airports. You’ve also got Stanstead to the NE of London, which is 45 minutes by train into London.

    I do think you are right in that both runways need to be built. Sadly, I dont see either happening for quite some time.

  13. @rich, For me, it’s not so much the noise, it’s more the ridiculous traffic, and badly designed road network around the airport that cause us difficulty. Plus all the taxi’s and people parking/waiting nearby to avoid the extremely high parking charges. It also means that the businesses that surround LHR have to move location, sometimes into more residential areas.
    As with so many things in London, it’s the extra things that don’t get taken into account.
    These things weren’t such big problems, even 10 years ago.
    I love living near LHR, planes past my window every few seconds, but it doesn’t mean I want a new runway at LHR.
    Personally I wish they’d convert Northolt to a domestic/euro terminal and connect it up with LHR via Underground & bus lanes.

  14. @ RT Bones – if there was a quick and easy transfer process between Heathrow and Gatwick they could either have all long-haul flights at Heathrow and all short-haul at Gatwick, or say, all Star Alliance and non-alliance flights at Gatwick with all Oneworld and SkyTeam flights at Heathrow.

    But, its almost 30 miles between the airports, with billions of dollars/pounds of privately owned property between the two to try and put a rail line between the two. To build it underground would be just as, if not more expensive.

  15. I hate the whole process, if an airport wants to build a run way just let it for godsake… why does everything have to be so complicated in the uk ….

  16. @ Corey – Stansted only actually operates at about 40% capacity, so has no need for another runway. If it wasn’t such a poor location with such poor facilities it would be much more attractive to major airlines.

  17. @James – I know, its not much better. I still think you could build a train line (even with all your caveats) quicker and cheaper than a third runway. Think about it – to make this runway work, leaving aside essentially leveling a town, you are going to have to put part of the M25 in a tunnel, not to mention the knock-on effect that effort will have on the M4 during the M25 ‘burial’. The only word that comes to mind to describe traffic as this happens is brutal.

    Again, youre not wrong in pointing out the difficulties of transport links as you do. I just think it could be done cheaper and quicker than the new runway.

  18. “But, its almost 30 miles between the airports, with billions of dollars/pounds of privately owned property between the two to try and put a rail line between the two. To build it underground would be just as, if not more expensive”

    What about following the existing motorways? Or, express trains on existing track?

  19. @ James

    “Stansted only actually operates at about 40% capacity, so has no need for another runway. If it wasn’t such a poor location with such poor facilities it would be much more attractive to major airlines.”

    The location is fine, but railway access was done as cheaply as possible – single track tunnel from the mainline to the airport terminal – and then has to share tracks with some of the most intensively used commuter lines in the world. So the “express” train is slow – much slower than it should be.

    There’s a proposal to quadruple the railway line into London, which is desperately needed, but Network Rail is such a basket case at the moment that God knows when/ if it’ll happen.

    The new terminal opened in 1991 – it was state-of-the-art then, and set the model for the new generation of mega-airports (many of them also designed by Foster). It has been butchered over the years, crammed-full of useless “retail opportunities” which deliberately obstruct people moving through the terminal to make them buy crap. It will be converted to a Departures only building when another new Arrivals building is completed next door (maybe the other way round – I haven’t checked).

    But I’m not sure why you think it has “poor facilities”?

    Oh – anyone who thinks building a new railway line is easier than building a runway hasn’t been paying attention. HS2? Crossrail? Thameslink? That’s before you look at the nightmare of trying to get simple rail access on a 5 mile line from southern England direct into LHR – a saga that’s been running for decades with literally no progress whatsoever.

  20. @TheNicePaul
    The reason there are so many smaller aircraft flying to JFK as opposed to sticking A380s on the route are

    1. BA has the most flights to JFK and flies into terminal 7 which cannot accommodate an A380

    2. The LON-NYC route is one where the maximum benefit is realised with a flexible schedule for business travelers.

  21. @theNicePaul – Never thought it would be easy – but I was actually thinking it might be possible to use existing rights-of-way, or even leverage off of some of the work CrossRail has done. Has got to be at least cost-competitive (note , not necessarilly cheap) to building a new rwy at LHR, and all the consternation that is going to cause.

  22. @ Lloyd guru

    As someone who uses that route for business I can assure you that it doesn’t make any difference if there’s a flight every two hours rather than every hour. Because that tiny number of business people whose time is so spectacularly valuable will anyway be using a private jet. For the rest of us, we assume time to NY will be eaten up by heavy traffic on the ludicrously unpredictable and congested freeways, or by another immigration cock-up at T5. So we leave extra time anyway. None of us is flying to the nearest minute – or even hour.

    But I’m curious how you think an airline like VS can make a go of its JFK route given its frequency from/ to LHR is a fraction of BA’s. No business travellers on VS?

    And, honestly, if BA had to fly A380s to NY it would find a way.

  23. Gatwick would have cost 7 billion pounds and i do understand why investing in heathrow makes sense, but 14 billion pounds is far from enough.

  24. “The UK economy has been hit hard since the Brexit vote, and will continue to do so whatever happens when and if the UK leaves the EU”

    the FTSE is up 25.6% since the vote so not sure what you mean by economy has been hit hard…

  25. Lets look at PVG as an inspiration to LHR.
    Initially constructed in just 2 years for ” only ” $1.7B USD. Now has 5 runways capable of servicing 80M passengers and 6 million tons of freight.
    Not to mention the maglev taking you into the city 30kms away in EIGHT minutes…. Lets bring in the communists to sort out Londons transport issues where is that guy called Boris lol

  26. @Jim: BOM’s two runways overlap in the middle. They tested using the two overlapping runways and didn’t find it to be faster with enough safety margin, so they use one with high-exit taxiways and the other is a backup when the main runway is closed. Apparently they just hit 1,000 flight movements in a 24-hour period with this setup.

    The long-term solution is a new airport outside of the city (“Navi Mumbai airport.”)

  27. … ?
    Why so complicated, Britain in not France… just buil a complete new airport and sell the land to promoters after!

  28. “UK Government Approves Third Runway For Heathrow – But How Long Will It Take?”

    [in Leslie Nielson voice] “About 12,000 feet, but that’s not important right now…”

  29. The Nice Paul is right.

    I wrote this elsewhere (sorry for the cut and paste):
    Just replace JFK with LHR

    The solution is simple
    Fly larger planes

    Airports should charge each airline a fee PER AIRPLANE

    This will prevent all these rinkydink planes from clogging up major airports

    For instance
    Imagine if JFK charged $5000 fee per PLANE per takeoff

    That would add $10 per ticket for an A380 with 500 passengers
    $20 per ticket for a smaller plane with 250 passengers
    $50 per ticket for a 100 passenger plane

    This would quickly signal passengers and Airlines to fly bigger planes to the busiest airports

    Passengers would see a $200 round trip flight on a big plane, and $250 round trip for a smaller plane, and act accordingly

    If they live in smaller markets that can’t handle an A330 or 777… they’d connect through a hub that can.. or pay the $50 (or whatever)

    Airlines would respond by routing their big planes to the super busy airports

    Problem solved

  30. Why is there often a commentary that LHR is on the wrong location ? When the airport was first developed it was not built up and the surrounding areas then developed as a result of the airport

    As for larger aircraft frequency is often more important. . Look at London Dubai and Emirates operates upto 6 A380 daily as they need both capacity and frequency

    And in China they don’t really care about the impact on the environment or feelings of the population. There are no discussions. Just move everyone out and build Then you get wonderful architecture but crappy customer service

  31. @Jim BOM uses only one runway for the below two reasons as pr my understanding

    1. The runways intersect, which makes using both slightly high risk
    2. The second runway IIRC on take off leads you towards a hill. It is also used to be slightly shorter, which makes MTOW take offs difficult.

    I could be wrong on the above, but the above is as per a conversation with an ATC employee

  32. @Icarus. I think LHR is in the wrong location because the prevailing wind means aircraft approach from the east, over the city. If the airport was to the east of the city they could approach over the sea and therefore operate at night. Building a new airport out there seems to be too ambitious for everybody except Boris – I’ll leave that there.

    As far as I know, LHR was built where it is because of the availability of flat land near the city.

    For my money, the worst place in the country to build anything would be on top of the M4/M25 junction.

  33. Isn’t there potential to upgrade the others: Luton, Stanstead, Gatwick ( plus the regionals) by fixing the transport links? Or would that just piss off more people around the country?
    London is pretty lucky to have so many options in close proximity to the city.
    If they do commit to LHR then it’s going to be quite reminiscent of watching the pitched battles at Narita as it was being built ( and in consequence to built Kansai and one other off the coast on reclaimed land).

  34. “Move all LGW long-haul flights to LHR
    Move all LHR short/medium-haul flights to LGW or LCY”

    Except that many passengers using LHR long haul services are coming in on regional “feeder” flights on “through-tickets” – so how would that suggestion work? I don’t fancy lugging my stuff across the South East to make my connection! Even a “Heathwick Express” – as attractive as that sounds – would not solve the problem.

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