The UK’s leading airports aim to fly 150 million more passengers each year

The UK’s eight biggest airports plan to fly nearly 150 million more passengers a year, equivalent to 300,000 extra jumbo jets, in a bid to ensure climate targets do not hold back the industry.

According to a Financial Times analysis of their expansion projects, they could handle a total of 387 million passengers a year, an increase of more than 60 percent compared to the 240 million passengers using the airports in 2019.

The figures highlight that airports are planning a period of rapid growth despite significant financial losses during the pandemic. They also show the industry’s belief that growth in the transition to the UK’s 2050 target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions is still possible.

More than a third of the increase would come from London Heathrow’s proposed megaproject to build a third runway. This would increase the annual passenger capacity of the UK’s largest airport to 142 million, up from 81 million in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. The airport halted planning in 2020 as Covid-19 brought the global aviation sector to a standstill, but last month indicated it would soon restart.

Kaye chief executive John Holland told the FT in February that he was “working to restart the planning process. . . We will share what our plans are later this year.” Any decision to consider the application is subject to an internal review which has yet to be completed.

Bar graph of passenger numbers (mn) The UK's eight largest airports have ambitious growth plans

Other projects are more modest in scale and range from Gatwick’s proposal to fly 30 million more passengers a year by bringing its emergency runway into regular use, to Manchester’s proposed expansion of one terminal to accommodate an additional 15 million passengers. In 2019, Edinburgh completed work to increase its capacity to 20 million passengers.

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Airport executives and investors said airports were scrambling to meet growth plans because many in the industry believed it would only become more difficult in the future as environmental pressures increased.

Air transport, seen as a key driver of economic growth, accounts for 8 per cent of UK emissions and is difficult to decarbonise due to the challenges of finding viable green propulsion technology.

The UK’s most recent policy framework for airport expansion was published in 2018 and supported new runways at Heathrow and other airports that “make the best use” of existing infrastructure.

Industry leaders argue that there is no reason to prevent expansion as the industry has pledged to be net zero by 2050. They also point out that the rapid development of quieter aircraft is helping to ease local concerns about noise pollution.

This is supported by the Ministry of Transport’s document on decarbonising aviation, published last year, which says that airport expansion is possible within the government’s climate change commitments because new technologies, such as cleaner fuels, will help the aviation industry to Reach net zero by 2050.

Campaigners cheer outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after winning a Court of Appeal challenge to Heathrow's third runway in 2020.
Campaigners cheer outside London’s Crown Court after winning a 2020 Court of Appeal challenge to Heathrow’s plans for a third runway © Stefan Rousseau/PA

But the Commission on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate adviser, has warned that if annual passenger numbers are to rise by more than 25 per cent from 2018 levels by 2050, emissions savings will need to come from other sectors to meet the legal carbon – emission targets.

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Environmental groups question whether growth in aviation is compatible with reducing carbon emissions, pointing to significant technological and financial hurdles to decarbonizing the industry.

They argue that the government needs a new comprehensive strategy to track the overall pace of airport expansion and compare the aggregate picture to climate change commitments.

Alex Chapman, senior research fellow at the New Economics Foundation, an anti-expansion think tank, said government policy was currently “effectively sanctioning unlimited growth in the sector”.

The 2018 Airport Policy Framework, which guides planning decisions, states that any 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 had “failed” due to a lack of national oversight, meaning each airport’s application was considered in isolation and assessed based on local impacts. . “This is the planning system. . . it’s not based on the debates we have to have now,” he added.

Expansion plans for the UK's largest UK airports

Chapman called on ministers to “take responsibility and put tough, enforceable targets in place”.

The government said the UK has “one of the most ambitious strategies in the world to reduce aviation emissions without affecting this vital sector, and we support airport expansion where feasible within our environmental obligations”.

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Bernard Lavelle, a consultant and former chief executive of London City and Southend airports, said the airports were “very serious” about reducing emissions.

He said continued growth was essential for the sector, which had extremely high fixed costs, from security to air traffic control. “It literally has a lot of outbound costs to open the front door, but.” [as passenger numbers rise] airports can then become quite profitable because costs do not rise at the same rate,” he added.

Some smaller airports have managed to implement expansion plans recently, including Bristol, which was given permission to increase passenger capacity from 10 million to 12 million last year.

But not everyone has had it, with 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, the impact on the green belt and the wider impact on climate change citing concerns about

The issue is likely to be back on the political agenda later this year if Heathrow submits plans for a third runway as expected. Holland-Kaye insisted that the pandemic had confirmed the need to increase the size of the UK’s main hub airport after a variety of border restrictions cut off British passengers from other major European hubs such as Paris and Frankfurt.

“Everything we said about it being the right thing has been confirmed,” he said.

Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson