Forget disastrous Heathrow and build a more efficient hub to London’s east

Daniel Moylan

AIRPORT policy is getting a lot of headlines, as different organisations (including the airports themselves) make their submissions to the Airports Commission.

That attention is well-deserved, because it is a subject that is critical to our economy and its future. Much of our most valuable trade moves by air, and relationships with emerging markets are formed most effectively through direct air connections. Work by Frontier Economics has shown that UK businesses trade 20 times more with emerging markets that have daily flights to Britain compared with those with less frequent or no direct service.

Impartial aviation experts, both in the UK and in other countries, agree that only a large, single hub airport can generate those direct connections. The latest research by York Aviation shows that a four-runway hub airport would allow the UK to establish direct routes to four times more destinations in the key emerging markets of China and South America than can be reached today. These are markets that are currently extremely difficult to reach from the UK, but they have the potential to create huge value if we can beat our international competitors there. Every “passenger” flight from the UK to China carries over £1m in freight, for instance.

Unfortunately, the UK has failed to form a policy on airports for 40 years, and we have to get it right this time. We cannot afford another failure.

What the work of York Aviation shows – alongside countless other studies and real-life examples from around the world – is that the right answer has to be a four-runway hub airport. That is something that Heathrow, already the noisiest airport in Europe and possibly the world, can never become. Over 766,000 people are already adversely affected by noise from Heathrow (accounting for 28 per cent of all the people affected by aircraft noise in Europe). On these grounds alone Heathrow is an environmental and planning disaster. To add just one runway there would turn it into a catastrophe, affecting over 1m people.

Even setting the insurmountable obstacle of noise to one side, the proposals published by Heathrow on 17 July show how extremely challenging trying to squeeze a four-runway airport onto the current Heathrow site would be. The huge taxi times and totally uncompetitive minimum connection times pale into insignificance when you consider that all of the four-runway proposals require realignment or tunnelling of the M25, the country’s busiest motorway. And let’s not kid ourselves into thinking three runways will be enough; it was not so long ago that Heathrow said it would never need to expand beyond Terminal 5.

Relocating Heathrow to a new site on the eastern side of London would face none of these problems. A blank slate provides the opportunity to build a highly efficient, state-of-the-art hub airport. It would let us affordably construct world class surface access connections, quite unlike Heathrow’s ailing and constrained transport links. And it radically reduces the number of people affected by aircraft noise, giving the airport freedom to operate at whatever hours of the day (or night) it needs to, without harming local communities.

Even at a cautious estimate, the benefits would be astronomical. The new airport itself would generate 26,000 construction jobs, followed by 134,000 permanent jobs when it opened in 2029. The airport’s regenerative stimulus would create up to 138,000 induced jobs in east London, Kent and Essex – regions which include some of the most deprived parts of the country. And the release of the current Heathrow site for reintegration into the city would provide scope for 80,000 homes and 43,500 permanent jobs.

I hold my hands up: we are talking about government intervention on a huge scale. But this is a project that we have the expertise to see through. We happily sell our prowess in engineering and architecture to every other country in the world, including to China, which is merrily building a nine-runway airport outside Beijing. And this is a project that will, on its own, add 0.5 per cent to UK GDP in the long run.

There is no magic bullet; there is nothing faster, or we would have done it. It is time to make the tough decision and crack on with it, before we fall further behind our rivals both in Europe and further afield.

Daniel Moylan is the mayor of London’s chief aviation adviser, and has led the mayor’s work on aviation policy for over three years. All of the mayor’s work on aviation policy is available for download at