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Airports: Time to apply some engineering ingenuity

Mark Hansford

So which airport expansion option do you support?

So which airport expansion option do you support? It’s a hot topic, with airport developers spending the last week setting out their revised expansion plans ahead of submission to Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission. Options are centred on Heathrow and Gatwick.

Gatwick’s plans highlight the relative simplicity of a project that involves building a new runway on land already set aside for runway expansion.

And from watching the front-facing camera on my A380 as it approached Gatwick last Thursday evening it does look pretty simple - with fields, fields and more fields surrounding the airport as far as the eye can see.

For my money, Gatwick is the obvious solution to the short-term capacity issue

Heathrow Airport’s plans are definitely more complex, with its proposed third runway to be built out over the M25. That section of Britain’s busiest road will have to be tunnelled and Heathrow is promising to do this while keeping the M25 open. A tough brief.

The third confirmed contender, Heathrow Hub, also has a plan that demands building out over the M25 although this one involves extending one of the existing runways to create a super-long one that can operate as two. It’s a cunning engineering-led idea that seeks to avoid “third runway” rhetoric.

Meanwhile, backers of a Thames Estuary airport are concluding further work requested by Davies. This could add the most adventurous of all proposals to the mix.

So which do you engineers fancy? I ask, highly cognisant of the fact that many of you dispute my choice of definition of an engineer. Many of you clearly - and perhaps rightly - would prefer it if the simplistic “controller of an engine” definition was disregarded.

You would clearly prefer it if the Oxford English Dictionary went back to the Middle English view of an engineer as someone who applies “ingenuity and cunning”, derived as the word is from the Old French word engin and Latin ingenium.

This, surely, is the opportunity to inject some of that engineering ingenuity and cunning; to raise our collective profiles.

The ICE has already been bold on this issue. It wants capacity maintained through a properly developed long-term plan, and also supports immediate action to address short term capacity constraints.

So it is definitely in the “do something” camp. The question is what?

For my money, Gatwick is the obvious solution to the short-term capacity issue. It has got the land, and it has got local support. It is a relatively simple project that appears to have little construction risk. It would be done and dusted by 2025, with not a penny paid by the taxpayer. The £7.8bn cost of expansion at Gatwick would be entirely covered by airport charges.

Heathrow’s £15.6bn project would be privately funded but it admits that government support for £1.2bn of surface access improvements would be required.

That could be tricky to secure. And it’s a far more complex project - 2025 is a much more challenging deadline for Heathrow.

But if it’s engineering ingenuity we are looking for, then Heathrow Hub is a serious contender. Initially extending one runway but scale-able potentially up to a four-runway offer by ultimately extending both existing runways west - it is clever thinking. It hasn’t got much support at the moment. Maybe now is the time to lend it some.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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