Is Londons hub future islands in the stream?
There is nothing the British like more than good old-fashioned gossip over the afternoon teacups.
Right now, they are getting all fussed up over where London’s future hub airport should be located. Up until now, the focus has been on London Heathrow as the country’s prime aviation gateway. But to expand, develop and retain that mantle, it needs to build a third, if not a fourth, runway. Prior to the last British election, the incoming Conservative Party promised to veto any proposed such third runway expansion.
Game over for LHR? Not so fast. Now a newly-convened Airports Commission has been set up to examine the question of the capital’s future airport needs, including the possibility of pouring more concrete at Heathrow.
Expansion of Heathrow is winning favor again, if only because it provides a relatively quick and cheap fix, particularly compared to the terrifying costs of some of the new build and, some would say, fantasy proposals being put on the table.
London’s maverick mayor, Boris Johnson, steps forward. He has been championing the cause of a “floating airport” in the Thames Estuary, complete with half a dozen runways. But the so-called “Boris Island” has been in dispute. And now even the mayor himself has backed off the idea in favor of another Thames Estuary concept airport to be built on a site further upstream.
Located on what is know as the Isle of Grain, this airport would provide four runways at an expected cost of 44 billion pounds (US$70 billion), but would require less infrastructure costs due to its closer proximity to central London. The project, known as Thames Estuary Airport, which could be in place by 2029, is also close to the logistics cluster created with the opening of the new Thames Gateway port.
And just to muddy the Thames waters still further, a more recent third alternative island airport proposal has been outlined located further downstream. The consortium, which is led by the Thames Estuary Research and Development Company (Testrad), insists it could put the so-called six-runway London Britannia Airport on the map at a cost of 44 billion pounds (US$70 billion), with an eventual capability of handling 220 million passengers a year.
If you are not yet confused over the teacups, then you soon will be.
London’s airport landscape has been through a radical overhaul in the last couple of years or so. The once-mighty British Airports Authority (BAA) previously ruled the roost, owning all three of the London gateway airports of Heathrow to the west of the city, Gatwick to the south and Stansted to the north.
The British Government ordered BAA to break up this monopoly, forcing it to sell both its Gatwick and Stansted operations. Gatwick is now in the hands of a group of international investment funds, of which Global Infrastructure Partners is the largest shareholder. In the meantime, the ownership of Stansted has more recently been transferred to Manchester Airports Group.
Not surprisingly, both newly independent ventures want a slice of the action and have pitched their own proposals to the Airports Commission. Both airports are single-runway operations. Gatwick is precluded from further runway expansion before 2019, but says it can quickly add a second runway by 2025.
It perhaps recognizes that it can never take on the full mantle of London’s hub airport, so argues instead for what it describes as a “constellation” of airports to serve London.
The new owners of Stansted insist they have the immediate capability of adding a second runway, with potential to add a third and fourth as and when needed.
Reflecting its diminished kingdom, BAA has since reconfigured itself as Heathrow Airport Holdings and is now busy beating the drum in the call for its particular expanse of concrete to remain the UK’s hub airport and where future expansion should rightly be focused.
Amid all this, Mayor Johnson continues to hedge his bets and backs London Stansted as his favored alternative choice for expansion of an existing site. His thoughts on London Heathrow? He wants the government to buy it back for 15 billion pounds (US$24 billion) and then bulldoze the site in favor of 100,000 new homes for Londoners. Ironically, the flagship British airport is owned by a consortium of interests from Spain, Qatar, Canada, Singapore and China.