The UK’s eight largest airports plan to carry nearly 150 million more passengers a year, the equivalent of 300,000 more wide-body aircraft, in a bet that climate targets won’t hold back the industry.
A Financial Times analysis of their expansion plans found that, combined, they would be able to handle 387 million passengers a year, an increase of more than 60% on the 240 million travelers who used the airports in 2019.
The figures show how airports are forecasting a period of skyrocketing growth despite major financial losses during the pandemic. They also demonstrate how industry believes transformational growth is still possible as the 2050 deadline approaches for the UK to achieve 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. It would increase passenger capacity at the UK’s biggest airport to 142 million a year from the 81 million it handled in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The airport suspended planning in 2020 as Covid-19 shut down the global aviation sector, but last month signaled it would resume soon.
Its chief executive, John Holland Kaye, told the FT in February that he was working “with the aim of restarting the planning process. . . We will share our plans later this year. Any decision to proceed with the request is subject to an internal review, which is not yet complete.
Other projects are on a more modest scale, ranging from Gatwick’s proposal to carry an additional 30 million passengers a year using its emergency runway regularly, to Manchester’s planned expansion of one of its terminals to accommodate 15 million additional passengers. Edinburgh has completed work to increase its capacity to 20 million passengers in 2019.
Airport executives and investors said airports are looking to implement growth plans as many industry players believe it will only become more difficult in the future as environmental pressures increase. .
Aviation, which is seen as a key driver of economic growth, accounts for 8% of UK emissions and is difficult to decarbonise due to challenges in finding viable green propulsion technology.
The UK’s most recent policy framework for airport expansion was released in 2018 and backed a new runway at Heathrow and other airports “making best use of” existing infrastructure.
Industry leaders say there is no reason to block expansion given the industry is committed to net zero by 2050. They also point to the rapid progress of aircraft more silent to help alleviate local concerns about noise pollution.
This is backed up by a Department for Transport paper on aviation decarbonisation released last year which said airport expansion was possible under the government’s climate change commitments, as new technologies, such as cleaner fuels, would 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 increase by more than 25% from 2018 levels by 2050, emissions savings would have to come from other sectors to meet legislated carbon targets.
Environmental groups question whether any growth in air travel is compatible with reducing carbon emissions, pointing to the significant technological and financial barriers that stand in the way of decarbonizing the industry.
They argue that the government needs a new comprehensive strategy to monitor the overall rate of airport expansion and compare the overall picture against climate commitments.
Alex Chapman, a senior fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a think tank that opposes expansion, said government policy at present “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 significant impact on the government’s ability to achieve 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 the Each airport’s application was considered in isolation and assessed according to its local impact. “This planning system. . . is not built for the debates we now need to have,” he added.
Chapman called on ministers to “take responsibility and put in place tough and enforceable targets”.
The government said the UK had “one of the most ambitious strategies in the world to reduce aviation emissions without affecting this vital sector, and we support the expansion of airports where it can be achieved in part of our environmental obligations”.
Bernard Lavelle, a consultant and former senior executive at London City and Southend Airports, said the airports were “very serious” about reducing their emissions.
He said continued growth was essential for the sector, which had extremely high fixed costs, from security to air traffic control. “You literally have a lot of outgoing charges 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 recently been successful in pushing through expansion plans, including Bristol which won permission to increase the passenger cap from 10 million to 12 million last year.
But not all have been successful, with the smaller Leeds Bradford airport scrapping plans for a new terminal in 2022 after the government stepped in and overruled the local council’s decision to approve the application, citing concerns over the effect on the green belt and the wider impact on climate change.
The issue is likely to rise on the political agenda later this year if, as expected, Heathrow submits its plans for the third runway. Holland-Kaye insisted the pandemic had strengthened the case for an increase in the size of the UK’s main hub airport, after a patchwork of border restrictions cut off British 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