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11 October 2016 · 3 min read

Heathrow vs. Gatwick?

The airport expansion debate rages on

Are we finally about to get an answer to the Heathrow vs. Gatwick airport expansion question? MPs are scheduled to debate the question of UK airport capacity next Tuesday (18 October) as the Prime Minister has indicated a desire to finally make a decision on an issue the Conservative Government has thus far managed to sweep under the carpet. Interestingly, the debate will be set against the backdrop of new research which shows that it is the road traffic in and around the airport that is the main contributor to emissions, not the aircraft themselves.

The air quality around Heathrow airport is often in breach of European standards. Emissions are therefore at the heart of the argument against expanding the airport with a third runway. To counter these arguments, previous studies have used estimates to suggest the air quality will improve in the future as technology improves for both aircraft and road vehicle engines. However this new study by the University of Cambridge is the first to be based on real-world data, collected from 40 Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) sensors at the airport. It stated that:

“If there is the development of a third runway, we expect there to be a marginal increase in NO2 coming from the airport itself, but that would be against the background of reduced NO2 from other traffic, because of Euro 6 engines and electrification of the traffic fleet.” (Professor Rod Jones, University of Cambridge)

Therefore road vehicles, rather than aircraft are set to take centre stage during the debate next week. Campaigners against airport expansion claim that the assumptions made about greener vehicles are falsely optimistic. The Deputy Director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) said “the assumption would have to be that over the next decade, we’d move from having 57% of London’s vehicles fleet being diesel vehicles to instead having ultra-clear electric vehicles throughout the capital. There just isn’t evidence to suggest that is going to happen.”

As an aerospace analyst though, I think the most interesting point from the study is that despite modelling over a third more aircraft take-off and landing cycles there is only expected to be a ‘marginal increase in the NO2 coming from the airport itself.’ This illustrates the significant improvements in aero engine technologies that have already occurred and which will continue. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports that new aircraft are 70% more fuel efficient than 40 years ago and about 10% better than ten years ago. The A350 and 787 MAX are targeting three litres of fuel per 100 passenger kilometres, which is better than an average small car.

MPs have three options on the table; a third runway at Heathrow, a second at Gatwick, or doubling the length of one of Heathrow’s existing runways. Theresa May is expected to give MPs free vote. Whilst her constituency (Maidenhead) would be impacted by expansion at Heathrow, she has said very little openly about the debate so her stance is unknown. The Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the Environment Minister Justine Greening are both openly against expanding Heathrow. Whichever scheme is chosen is expected to be operational by the middle of the next decade. 

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