The UK’s eight biggest airports have plans to fly almost 150mn more passengers a year, the equivalent of 300,000 extra jumbo jets, in a bet that climate targets will not hold back the industry.
A Financial Times analysis of their expansion projects found that combined they would be able to handle 387mn passengers annually, a more than 60 per cent increase on the 240mn travellers who used the airports in 2019.
The figures highlight how airports are planning for a period of breakneck growth despite significant financial losses during the pandemic. They also demonstrate how the industry believes that transformational growth is still possible in the lead-up to the deadline in 2050 for the UK to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
More than a third of the growth would come from London Heathrow’s proposed megaproject to build a third runway. This would 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 last month signalled it would resume soon.
Its chief executive John Holland Kaye 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 has yet to be completed.
The other projects are more modest in scale, and range from Gatwick’s proposal to fly 30mn 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 15mn passengers. Edinburgh completed the work to raise its capacity to 20mn passengers in 2019.
Airport executives and investors said airports were looking to push through growth plans because many in the industry believed that it would only get more difficult in the future as environmental pressures grew.
Aviation, which is seen as a key driver of economic growth, accounts for 8 per cent of UK emissions and is difficult to decarbonise because of 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 backed a new runway at Heathrow and other airports “making best use” of existing infrastructure.
Industry executives argue that there is no reason to block expansion given that the industry has pledged to reach net zero by 2050. They also point to rapid advances in quieter aircraft to help assuage local concerns about noise pollution.
This is supported by a Department for Transport paper on decarbonising aviation published last year that said airport expansion was possible within the government’s climate change commitments because new technologies, such as cleaner fuels, would help the aviation industry hit net zero by 2050.
But the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate advisers, has warned that if annual passenger numbers increased by more than 25 per cent from 2018 levels by 2050 then emissions savings would need to come from other sectors to meet the legislated carbon targets.
Environmental groups question whether any growth in flying is compatible with cutting carbon emissions, pointing to the significant technological and financial hurdles standing in the way of decarbonising the industry.
They argue that the government needs a new overarching strategy to monitor the overall rate of airport expansion, and benchmark the aggregate picture against climate commitments.
Alex Chapman, senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank that opposes expansion, said that at present 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 emission caused by any expansion project must not have “a material impact on the ability of government 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” because of a lack of national oversight, which meant that each airport’s application was considered in isolation and assessed on its local impact. “This planning system . . . is not built for the debates we now have to have,” he added.
Chapman called on ministers to “take responsibility and put hard, enforceable targets in place”.
The government said the UK had “one of the most ambitious strategies in the world to reduce aviation emissions without impacting this vital sector, and we are supportive of airport expansion where it can be delivered within our environmental obligations”.
Bernard Lavelle, a consultant and former senior executive at London City and Southend airports, said airports were “very serious” about cutting their emissions.
He said continued growth was essential for the sector, which had extremely high fixed costs, ranging from security to air traffic control. “You have a lot of outgoing costs literally to open the front door, but [as passenger numbers rise] airports can then become quite profitable because costs do not increase at the same rate,” he added.
Some smaller airports have managed to push through expansion plans recently, including Bristol which won permission to increase the cap on passengers from 10mn to 12mn last year.
But not all have succeeded, the smaller Leeds Bradford airport scrapped plans for a new terminal in 2022 after the government intervened and overruled the local council’s decision to approve the application, citing concerns about the effect on the greenbelt and the wider impact on climate change.
The issue is likely to move up the political agenda again later this year if, as expected, Heathrow submits its plans for the third runway. Holland-Kaye insisted that the pandemic had strengthened the case for increasing the size of the UK’s main hub airport, after a patchwork of border restrictions cut off UK passengers from other large 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