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No easy fix to airport capacity crisis, says Heathrow

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Heathrow has today told the Airports Commission that there is no quick or easy solution to ease the UK’s lack of hub airport capacity. Physical and planning constraints mean short-term solutions to increase flights and generate growth and jobs are limited.

Heathrow is not proposing the use of mixed-mode1 as a short-term measure to increase capacity. Heathrow believes that the incremental capacity delivered by mixed mode comes at a significant cost to the local community because it would end periods of respite from noise. This is different from an additional runway which would deliver sufficient capacity for the foreseeable future while still providing periods of noise respite for residents.

Heathrow has proposed a package of other measures that the Commission could support to improve Heathrow’s reliability and punctuality for passengers whilst reducing noise impacts for local communities.

At the end of this year, the Airports Commission will produce an interim report which will make recommendations on short and medium term options. These options do not need extra runways or terminals, but can be delivered within five years of the interim report (short term options) or longer than five years (medium term options).

In its submission on ‘Making best use of existing capacity in the short and medium term’, Heathrow says the only realistic solution to the UK’s shortage of hub capacity involves building a third runway. Its submission says:

There is no quick fix to capacity problems and any marginal capacity improvements should be used to improve resilience rather than add more flights. Heathrow is the world’s busiest two-runway airport with a flight taking off or landing every 45 seconds. Flights at Heathrow are capped at 480,000 per annum by a Terminal 5 planning condition and last year the airport operated at 98% of the cap. Due to the Local Planning Authority’s stated policy position on Heathrow expansion, the likely timescale to lift that cap would be several years. Because Heathrow is full, adverse weather typically causes more disruption than at other airports. The airport recommends that any short-term improvements in capacity should be used to improve reliability and punctuality for passengers rather than add more flights.
Investment over the last ten years has made Heathrow one of Europe’s most successful hub airports but the CAA’s pricing proposals put future investment at risk. Heathrow has invested £11bn over the last ten years and the airport has moved from the bottom to the top of EU airports for passenger satisfaction, with Terminal 5 voted the world’s best airport terminal by passengers for two years running. The CAA’s price cap proposals for Heathrow from 2014 to 2019 include a cost of capital of 5.35%. This proposed rate of return is insufficient to attract the necessary investment at Heathrow for the short and medium term. If the CAA’s current proposals are implemented then the investment needed to further improve UK hub competitiveness and service to passengers would be put at risk.
Heathrow is proposing a new package of measures to the Commission that would improve hub competitiveness and deliver noise benefits. The measures include redesigning airspace and changing operating procedures to deliver a more efficient and resilient airport. Some of the measures are designed to ensure that fewer people are affected by noise. None of the measures would result in more flights at the airport.
Heathrow’s Chief Executive, Colin Matthews, said:

“The Airports Commission has a challenging task in its bid to find short term solutions to long term problems. The only real solution to a lack of runway capacity at our hub airport is to build another runway.

“We are not proposing the use of mixed mode as a short-term measure because of the impact on local communities of ending periods of respite from noise. We are listening to local residents’ concerns and we are working hard to develop new long-term solutions that can deliver additional flights whilst also reducing noise.”

The specific measures the airport is recommending that the Commission should consider are:

Redesigning Heathrow airspace to improve airport and airspace efficiency and routing aircraft over less populated areas.
Introducing runway alternation when the airport is operating with aircraft landing or taking off heading east to provide new respite periods for communities in Slough, Windsor and Hounslow.
Introducing the measures used in the recent Operational Freedoms trial including ‘early vectoring’ to improve departure rates; tactically using both runways for arrivals when there are delays; using the southern runway for Terminal 4 arrivals and the departures runway for A380 arrivals.
Putting an end to routine arrivals on both runways between 06.00 and 07.00 in return for permitting an increased number of arrivals on one runway between 05.00 and 06.00. This would deliver new periods of respite from early morning noise for local communities while improving hub competitiveness by making more passenger connections viable.
Changing the policy of concentrating aircraft on only a few flight paths to one of using a greater number of routes in a pattern that provides predictable periods of respite from aircraft flying overhead.
Reassessing the policy of ‘first come, first served’ by which the first aircraft to arrive into Heathrow airspace are permitted to land first. A better approach would be to serve aircraft by schedule, so that the airport is working to a plan, and to prioritise aircraft equipped with the latest performance-based navigation systems.
Ending the policy of westerly preference by which aircraft land or take-off heading west, even when weather conditions are such that they could head in either direction. This would be subject to NATS concluding that this would deliver a noise benefit for residents without compromising operational performance.
None of these proposals would result in an increase in flights above the current 480,000 per annum cap. Although the measures proposed are valuable, by themselves they are no substitute for providing an additional runway which is ultimately required to deliver long-haul connectivity for the UK.

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