Assembly report says London's airport capacity is underused

Airport capacity in London is currently underused, with some of London's airports having more than half their runway slots free, says a new London Assembly report. Even Heathrow – at 99 per cent runway capacity – might potentially fly an additional 20 million passengers every year if larger aircraft were used.

The Transport Committee’s report – Airport Capacity in London – suggests existing airport capacity in London, including at busier Heathrow and Gatwick airports, could be used more effectively.

Its reasearch shows:

  • Stansted Airport: 47 per cent of runway slots are available
  • Luton Airport: 51 per cent of runway slots are available
  • Gatwick Airport: 12 per cent of runway slots are currently available
  • Heathrow Airport: at 99 per cent capacity, Heathrow’s runway capacity is nearly full, but some evidence submitted suggests increasing aircraft size would allow it to increase capacity

To encourage passengers to switch from Heathrow, the report says better transport access from central London to Gatwick, Luton and Stansted is needed. Stansted Airport believes it could attract 1.5 million more passengers per year if the rail journey time from London were reduced from 45 to 30 minutes.

The report also reveals that in 2010, 127 million people used London’s airports and most, including those using Heathrow, flew direct to their destinations (78 per cent) rather than transferring, which puts into question the case for an additional hub airport. Seventy-five per cent of flights from Heathrow, the UK's only major international hub airport, are short haul and London remains the best connected European city across the 23 fastest growing economies.

In addition, runway constraints at Heathrow and other airports might not be the reason for fewer flights to emerging economies, but – as new evidence commissioned for the report shows – passengers' preference to fly from their nearest airport.

Local demand for airports must be considered by the Airport Commission in its assessment of the different options for addressing airport capacity including the Mayor’s proposal for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Evidence submitted from National Air Traffic Services shows other issues would also need to be considered if a site to the east of London is chosen, including airspace implications with the potential for additional flights and lower flight paths over central London.

Caroline Pidgeon, Chair of the London Assembly’s Transport Committee, said:

“Evidence we received shows that the Airport Commission must examine whether better use of existing airport capacity could be an intelligent cost-effective alternative to building new airports or runways.

“The need for additional hub capacity is also under debate, with strong data showing rather than runway capacity limiting airlines ability to fly to emerging markets, it could be low passenger demand from each airport’s geographical area. As 700,000 residents already suffer from noise pollution as a result of Heathrow flights, we also hope that any plans to expand Heathrow can soon be laid to rest.

“Currently London sees 130 million passengers traveling through our airports each year. The challenge for the government and decision-makers is to find the best way to support the UK’s economy globally while ensuring Londoners are not adversely affected by worsening noise and air pollution from planes flying over the capital. In the short term using existing capacity in a smarter way may be the most cost effective solution.

Later this year the Airports Commission will produce its interim report on the UK’s future aviation requirements. The Transport Committee’s report seeks to inform its findings.

You can read more from Caroline on this in an article for Public Service Europe.