ABTA believes that there is a need for increased airport capacity in the UK.


The Department for Transport (DfT) Aviation White Paper in December 2003 set out the Government’s plans for the future of aviation. The Government was generally in favour of capacity expansion across the UK and proposed new runways at Stansted and at either Edinburgh or Glasgow. A third short runway was also supported at Heathrow provided environmental issues could be resolved. Failing this a second runway would be considered at Gatwick (but not before 2019 when the agreement with the West Sussex County Council expires).

The Government announced in January 2009 that a third runway and additional terminal facilities at Heathrow had been given the go-ahead (work expected to commence in 2015 with opening in 2019), once strict air quality and noise conditions were shown to be met.

The political controversy surrounding new runways, and the local opposition they inspired, was aired extensively in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. This led the newly formed Coalition Government to place a moratorium on the building of any new runways in the South-East. Instead, the Coalition advocated a ‘better, not bigger’ approach to aviation policy.

In autumn 2012 the Government announced an independent Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, on identifying and recommending options for maintaining the UK’s status as an international hub for aviation. The Commission made an interim report in December 2013 and final recommendations in July 2015.

In December 2015, the Government delayed a final decision until summer 2016.

Airports Commission work

The Commission’s work began in early 2013 with a series of consultations published on a variety of subjects including airport operational models, aviation noise, connectivity and the economy. ABTA responded to six of these consultations, calling for hub airport capacity with connectivity from the Regions, emphasised the need for excellent surface access and recognition of the importance of leisure aviation. 

The Commission’s interim report was published on 17 December 2013.

It concluded that there was a need for one net additional runway in the South-East to be operational by 2030 and would take forward for further detailed study proposals for new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow:

  • Gatwick Airport: The airport’s proposal for a new 3,000m runway to the south of the existing runway spaced sufficiently apart to permit fully independent operation.
  • Heathrow Airport: The airport’s proposal for one new 3,500m runway to the north-west of the existing airport spaced sufficiently to permit fully independent operation.
  • Heathrow Airport: Heathrow Hub’s proposal to extend the existing northern runway to at least 6,000m, enabling the extended runway to operate as two independent runways, one for departures and one for arrivals.

The Commission did not shortlist either of the Mayor’s Thames Estuary options because it considered there were too many uncertainties and challenges.

The Commission published its final report on 1 July 2015.  Its analysis showed that expanded airport capacity was crucial for the UK’s long-term prosperity. While each of the three schemes shortlisted was considered a credible option for expansion, the Commission unanimously concluded that the proposal for a new north-west runway at Heathrow presented the strongest case and offered the greatest strategic and economic benefits. This was combined with a significant package of measures to address its environmental and community impacts:

  • a ban on all scheduled night flights in the period from 11.30pm to 6.00am, which is only possible with expansion;
  • no fourth runway: the Government should make a firm commitment in Parliament not to expand the airport further - there is no sound operational or environmental case for a fourth runway at Heathrow;
  • a legally binding ‘noise envelope’ putting firm limits on the level of noise created by the airport;
  • a new aviation noise levy to fund an expanded programme of mitigation, including noise insulation for homes, schools and other community facilities;
  • a legal commitment on air quality that new capacity will only be released when it is clear that compliance with EU limits will not be delayed;
  • a Community Engagement Board, under an independent chair, with real influence over spending on mitigation and compensation and over the airport’s operations;
  • an independent aviation noise authority, with a statutory right to be consulted on flightpaths and other operating procedures at all UK airports;
  • provision of training opportunities and apprenticeships for local people, so that nearby communities benefit from the jobs and economic opportunities.

On 10 December 2015, the Government announced that, while they accepted the case for airport expansion in the south east, they had delayed a final decision.

They would undertake a package of further work on the air quality and greenhouse gas emissions implications of the three shortlisted options which they anticipated would conclude over the summer.

ABTA’s position

ABTA believes that political consensus on the future of the UK’s aviation infrastructure is absolutely crucial.  ABTA has called on the major political parties to acknowledge the need for more airport capacity in the south-east and commit to working to find a cross-party solution to building and developing our airport infrastructure for the future. People value highly the ability to fly, both inbound and outbound, for business, leisure and to visit friends and relatives. ABTA highlighted the importance of leisure aviation to the UK economy as a wealth and a job creator without which many air routes essential to business would simply not exist.

ABTA believes there is a role for both hub and point to point capacity in the UK and both are essential to maintaining the UK’s competitive position. ABTA believes that there can be only one international hub airport in the UK with a comprehensive route network serving destinations that other airports cannot, supplementing local demand with domestic and international transfer traffic and freight. Hub capacity must be affordable and located where airlines and passengers will use it.

We know that passengers hugely value the ability to connect quickly to airports, which is why ABTA also strongly advocated improvements to public transport access, especially ensuring the speed of journeys into city centres and excellent connectivity to other parts of the UK.

Passengers also deserve a high quality experience once in the airport - airports must set out how they plan to continually improve their facilities.

ABTA was deeply disappointed that the decision on whether to go ahead with a new runway had been delayed yet again. The report published by the Airports Commission in July clearly recommended expansion at Heathrow following three years of fair, transparent, and thorough processes and consultations. Whilst ABTA agrees it is essential that environmental impacts must be minimised and mitigated, clear and decisive action is needed now. Failure to act will only lead to further significant damage to the UK economy.