Britain gives green light to £16 billion expansion of Heathrow airport

Prime minister Theresa May’s government gave the green light to a £16 billion expansion of London’s crowded Heathrow airport, ending years of prevarication over what has become one of the most contentious issues in British politics.

The announcement Tuesday endorsed the conclusions of a state-sponsored commission that said last year Heathrow and not its rival Gatwick is the best candidate for growth amid a crunch in UK flight capacity.

Construction of a new, third landing strip at Heathrow will allow the 70-year-old airport west of London to handle 135 million passengers a year, up from 75m passengers now.

“The step that government is taking today is truly momentous,” transport secretary Chris Grayling said in a statement. “A new runway at Heathrow will improve connectivity in the UK itself and crucially boost our connections with the rest of the world, supporting exports, trade and job opportunities.”

The chief executive of British Airways-owner IAG welcomed London’s approval for a new runway at Heathrow, praising its plan to keep charges for airlines at close to current levels.

IAG boss Willie Walsh has long-said that his group’s airlines, which include Heathrow’s biggest airline British Airways, would look to expand elsewhere if a bigger Heathrow was to increase its fees.

“The Government’s directive to cap customer charges at today’s level is fundamental,” Mr Walsh said.

“We will be vigilant in ensuring that Heathrow does not raise charges to benefit its shareholders to the detriment of the travelling public.”

A public consultation will now be held before final government proposals are put to parliament in the winter of 2017-2018. Mrs May said last week that any ministers with “strongly held views” against expanding Heathrow would be free to continue to express their opposition, in a break from normal practice, though not in parliament. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has been the most prominent of those critics.

While Heathrow remains Europe’s busiest airport, indecision over its expansion has seen that lead diminish in recent years as competitors including Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle add flights on their multiple runways. Fast-growing hubs further east, including Dubai and Istanbul, are also grabbing a bigger share of the most lucrative long-haul transfer traffic.

Mrs May’s predecessor, David Cameron, put off a decision on Heathrow in December when he said more studies were needed on the environmental impact of a hub surrounded by the urban sprawl of west London and with flight paths over the centre of the city. His earlier move to appoint an Airports Commission led by former Financial Services Authority chairman Howard Davies to adjudicate on expansion had in turn avoided making the runway decision a potential vote loser in the 2015 general election.

While Mr Davies shortlisted three proposals for adding capacity – including a second runway at Gatwick and an extension of one of the two existing runways at Heathrow – he concluded that the third-runway plan was superior. Carriers including British Airways also backed the model, arguing that expanding Gatwick would split flights between two similarly sized bases, making fewer routes viable than from a single super-hub with double the traffic.

Mr Cameron had been hamstrung by a “no ifs, no buts” commitment not to expand Heathrow issued in the run-up to the 2010 election, as well as opposition to the plan among prominent figures in his own party, including lawmakers Zac Goldsmith, the conservative candidate in London’s last mayoral election, and Justine Greening, the education secretary, whose constituencies are under the flight-path.

Mr Johnson was an outspoken critic of expanding Heathrow during his time as London mayor between 2008 and this year, proposing that Britain should instead build a completely new hub airport in the Thames estuary east of the capital. The model, dubbed “Boris Island,” was rejected outright by Mr Davies.

* Agencies

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