The UK’s eight largest airports have plans to carry nearly 150 million more passengers a year, the equivalent of 300,000 extra jumbo jets, in a bid that climate targets will not deter the sector.
A Financial Times analysis of its expansion projects found that, combined, they would be able to handle 387 million passengers annually, an increase of more than 60% on the 240 million travelers who used the airports in 2019.
The numbers underscore how airports are planning for a period of breakneck growth despite significant financial losses during the pandemic. They also demonstrate how the industry believes transformational growth is still possible in the run-up to the 2050 deadline for the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
More than a third of the growth would come from the proposed mega-project by London Heathrow to build a third runway. This would increase passenger capacity at the UK’s biggest airport to 142 million a year, up from 81 million in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. The airport halted planning in 2020 when Covid-19 brought the global aviation industry to a standstill, but last month it signaled it would soon resume.
Its chief executive, John Holland Kaye, told the Financial Times in February that he was working “with a view to 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 has not yet been completed.
The other projects are of more modest scale and range from Gatwick’s proposal to carry 30 million more passengers a year by putting its emergency runway into regular use, to Manchester’s planned expansion of one of its terminals to handle 15 millions of extra passengers. Edinburgh has completed work to increase its capacity to 20 million passengers in 2019.
Airport executives and investors said airports are trying to move forward with growth plans because many in the industry believe it will only get more difficult in the future as environmental pressures mount.
Aviation, which is seen as a key driver of economic growth, accounts for 8% of the UK’s emissions and is difficult to decarbonize due to the challenges involved in finding a viable green propulsion technology.
The UK’s most recent policy framework for airport expansion was published in 2018 and supported a new runway at Heathrow and other airports “making the best use” of existing infrastructure.
Industry executives argue that there is no reason to block expansion once the industry has committed to reaching net zero by 2050. They also point to rapid advances in quieter aircraft to help assuage local concerns about noise pollution.
This is backed up by a Department of Transport paper on decarbonizing aviation published last year, which said airport expansion was possible within government commitments to climate change because new technologies such as cleaner fuels would help the industry. of aviation to reach net zero by 2050.
But the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate advisers, warned that if annual passenger numbers rise by more than 25% from 2018 levels by 2050, emissions savings would need to come from other sectors to meet targets. legislated carbon emissions.
Environmental groups question whether any growth in aviation is compatible with reducing carbon emissions, pointing to the significant technological and financial obstacles that stand in the way of decarbonizing the industry.
They argue that the government needs a comprehensive new strategy to monitor the overall rate of airport expansion and compare the aggregate picture with climate commitments.
Alex Chapman, a senior fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank that opposes the expansion, said that current government policy “effectively sanctions unlimited growth in the sector.”
The 2018 airport policy framework, which guides planning decisions, states that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by any expansion project must not have “a material impact on the government’s ability to meet its carbon reduction targets ”.
But Alistair 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 that each airport application was considered in isolation and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. its local impact. “This planning system . . . it was not built for the debates we have to have now,” he added.
Chapman called on ministers to “take responsibility and set strict, achievable targets”.
The government said the UK has “one of the most ambitious strategies in the world to reduce emissions from aviation without impacting this vital sector, and we support airport expansion where it can be delivered within our environmental obligations”.
Bernard Lavelle, consultant and former senior executive at London City and Southend airports, said airports are “very serious” about reducing their emissions.
According to him, continued growth is essential for the sector, which has very high fixed costs, from security to air traffic control. “You have a lot of exit costs to literally open the front door, but [as passenger numbers rise] airports can become quite profitable because costs do not increase at the same rate,” he added.
Some smaller airports have managed to implement expansion plans recently, including Bristol, which gained permission to increase its passenger cap from 10 million to 12 million last year.
But not all were successful, with smaller Leeds Bradford Airport scrapping plans for a new terminal in 2022 after the government stepped in and overturned the local council’s decision to approve the application, citing concerns about the effect on the greenbelt and the wider impact. wide on climate change.
The issue is likely to move up the political agenda again later this year if, as expected, Heathrow unveils its plans for the third runway. Holland-Kaye insisted the pandemic has strengthened the case for increasing the size of the UK’s main hub airport after a patchwork of border restrictions isolated UK passengers from other major European hubs such as Paris and Frankfurt.
“Everything we said about how it was the right thing to do was validated,” he said.
Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson