LONDON – In the UK’s capital, there are few topics that generate such contentious debate as the expansion of Heathrow Airport.
The UK’s current Prime Minister and former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, once famously said that he would: “lie down… in front of those bulldozers…. [to] stop the construction of that third runway.”
Environmentalists argue that expansion is immoral, illegal, and incompatible with UK commitments to reduce its emissions. However, Heathrow, the UK’s only hub airport, has been operating at full capacity for over a decade, and argues that growth will be lost to rival European hubs without expansion.
This article examines the agonising twists and turns of the expansion debate, the environmental concerns over expansion, and whether Heathrow will ever get a third runway.
Heathrow’s airfield legacy
Heathrow Airport began its life as The Great West Aerodrome. Located outside of London and densely populated urban areas, the airfield was a far cry from its current form.
During the Second World War, the airport underwent a significant expansion, originally designed with military use in mind. But, by the time the transformation was finished, the war was over, and the RAF found itself with more small airports than it needed.
Like many countries across Europe, numerous former British military airfields became private airports, geared towards commercial travel (Kass et, 2011). To begin with, air travel was only affordable to the privileged few; this soon changed.
The rise of the package holiday and cheaper fares from the 1960s onwards, led to an explosion in the number of air travellers across Europe (Crang, 2009). In 1960 there were just over 10 million UK terminal passengers, by 2019 this figure was approaching 300 million (CAA, 2020).