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UK’s top airports aim to fly 150 million more passengers a year

The UK’s eight largest airports plan to fly nearly 150 million more passengers a year, the equivalent of 300,000 additional jumbo jets, betting that climate targets won’t hold the industry back.

A Financial Times analysis of their expansion projects shows that when combined, they will be able to handle 387 million passengers annually, an increase of more than 60% from the 240 million travelers who used the services. airport in 2019.

The figures highlight how airports are planning for a period of dizzying growth despite significant financial losses during the pandemic. They also demonstrate how industry believes transitional growth is still possible before the 2050 deadline for the UK to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

More than a third of growth will come from London Heathrow’s proposal Mega project to build a third runway. This will increase passenger capacity at the UK’s largest airport to 142 million a year from the 81 million it handled in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic. Airport pause planned for 2020 when Covid-19 shuts down the global aviation sector but last month signaled it would be back up and running soon.

Its CEO John Holland Kaye told the FT in February that it is working “with the aim of restarting the planning process. . . We will share our plans later this year.” Any decision to proceed with the application is subject to internal review, which has yet to be finalized.

Passenger numbers (million) bar graph shows the UK's eight biggest airports with ambitious growth plans

Other projects are more modest in scale, ranging from Gatwick’s proposal to serve an additional 30 million passengers a year by bringing emergency runways into regular use, to plans to expand one of the airports. station of Manchester to serve an additional 15 million passengers. Edinburgh has completed work to increase capacity to 20 million passengers by 2019.

Airport executives and investors say airports are looking to boost growth plans as many in the industry believe that will only become more difficult in the future as environmental pressures school increases.

Aviation, seen as a key driver of economic growth, accounts for 8% of the UK’s emissions and is difficult to decarbonise because of the challenges involved in finding viable green propulsion technology.

The UK’s most recent policy framework for airport expansion was published in 2018 and advocates for a new runway at Heathrow and other airports to “make the best use of” existing infrastructure.

Industry executives argue that there is no reason to halt expansion as the industry has committed to net zero by 2050. They also point to rapid advances in quieter aircraft to help assuage local concerns about noise pollution.

This is supported by a Department of Transport paper on the decarbonizing aviation industry published last year that said airport expansion was possible within the government’s climate change commitments because of the New technologies, such as cleaner fuels, will help aviation reach zero by 2050.

Campaigners cheer outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after winning the Court of Appeals challenge in 2020 against plans to build a third runway at Heathrow
Campaigners cheer outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London after winning the 2020 Court of Appeals challenge against plans to build a third runway at Heathrow © Stefan Rousseau/PA

But the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent climate adviser, has warned that if annual passenger numbers rise more than 25% from 2018 levels by 2050, emissions will be saved. will need to come from other sectors to meet statutory carbon targets.

Environmental groups question whether any developments in the aviation industry are compatible with cutting carbon emissions, pointing to significant technological and financial hurdles impeding the process. industry decarbonisation.

They argue that the government needs a new overarching strategy to monitor the overall pace of airport expansion and assess the overall picture based on climate commitments.

Alex Chapman, a senior research fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank that opposes expansion, said government policy now “effectively penalizes unrestricted growth in the sector”.

The 2018 Airports Policy Framework, which guides planning decisions, states that the increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by any expansion project must not have a “significant impact on the ability of the government to government in meeting carbon reduction targets”.

But Alistair Watson, partner and head of planning and the environment at law firm Taylor Wessing, said the planning system had “failed” because of a lack of national oversight, which means is that each airport application is considered separately and its local impact assessed. “This planning system. . . not built for the debates we have to have,” he added.

Expansion plans of some of the UK's biggest airports

Chapman urged ministers to “take responsibility and set tough, achievable goals”.

The government said the UK has “one of the most ambitious strategies in the world to reduce aviation emissions without impacting this vital sector and we support the expansion of the airport, where the it can be done within our environmental obligations”.

Bernard Lavelle, a consultant and former senior executive at City of London and Southend airports, said airports were “very serious” about cutting their emissions.

He said continued growth is essential for this sector, which has very high fixed costs, from security to air traffic control. “You have to pay a lot of money to open the front door, but [as passenger numbers rise] airports can then become quite profitable because costs do not increase at the same rate,” he added.

Recently, a number of smaller airports have been trying to push through with expansion plans, including Bristol Airport which was allowed to increase the passenger limit from 10 million to 12 million last year.

But not all was successful, with the smaller Leeds Bradford airport canceling plans to build a new terminal by 2022 after the government intervened and overruled the local council’s decision to approve the application, citing concerns about the effect on the green belt and the broader impact on climate change.

The issue is likely to re-emerge on the political agenda later this year if, as expected, Heathrow submits plans for a third runway. Holland-Kaye stressed that the pandemic has reinforced the case for an increase in the size of the UK’s main hub airport, after a series of border restrictions cut UK passengers off from other major hubs. of Europe, such as Paris and Frankfurt.

“Everything we say about how to do the right thing is vindicated,” he said.

Additional reporting by Camilla Hodgson

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