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Interview | Phil Wilbraham, Heathrow Airport

Heathrow r3 north west option cropped

Every Friday morning from 9am to 11am, Heathrow Airport Ltd’s “option steering group” meets to discuss 16 ongoing studies related to expansion and its proposed third runway.

Pulled from a 150-strong design team, and Heathrow representatives, these big ideas are dissected in detail.

“These are big questions like: the M25 – should we continue with our submission to the Airports Commission where we’d move and lower the M25 and then go over it at the same level as the existing runways, or should we raise this new runway up six or seven metres and over the top of the existing M25?” explains Heathrow Airport Ltd expansion programme director Phil Wilbraham.

Phil wilbraham cropped

Phil wilbraham cropped

Wilbraham: Planning for expansion

Deciding the right length for the runway, how to approach route changes to the A4 and A3044, and environmental mitigation are all considered “big questions”. These studies are overseen by Wilbraham, who has to ensure they come together into two or three expansion plan options in time for Heathrow’s expansion consultation in the summer.

“So that’s the beauty of my job,” he says wryly.

Now comes a long period of consulting for Heathrow. In February, the draft Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), set out the policy framework for airport expansion. A government consultation on this is open to the public until 25 May.

Meanwhile Wilbraham is keen to get on with things. Heathrow has its own consultation in the summer, with the local community and business stakeholders having their say on its expansion plan.

Ultimately we want to get the runway in place as soon as we sensibly can

The seven-company strong integrated design team (IDT) – consisting of concept architect Grimshaw, engineering firms Mott MacDonald, Amec Foster-Wheeler, Jacobs, Atkins, and Arup, and planning consultants Quod – will take feedback from this first consultation to create a “preferred master plan” by February 2018.

Following a second consultation on that plan and more environmental assessments, a planning application will be made in the middle of 2019.

But that is more than two years away. What are Wilbraham’s priorities now?

“I think it’s really important for us to get the position and length of the runway fixed,” he stresses.

Covering fields

The new north-west runway will cover fields which currently sit just beyond the north runway.

But it will be a tight fit, and the new runway will cut into the path of the M25. Solutions being considered include diverting the motorway through a tunnel or elevating the runway over the road.

Dimensions of 3,500m by 50m for the runway are not set in stone. It could be shorter, or narrower, to future-proof for newer aircraft, and it could use precast concrete – while Heathrow’s existing runways and taxiways have been built insitu, a small team has gone to America to investigate best practice.

Once decisions about the runway have been made, focus can switch to the terminals.

“What we don’t want to do is build large buildings, and lots of stands [for parked aircraft], and then not use them for a few years, so we want to phase it such that these are brought on at the right times, which will make this development really efficient and also affordable for ourselves, the airlines etcetera.”

It has yet to be decided whether Terminal 2,  which will be known as Heathrow East, is extended first, or whether new Terminals 6A and 6B, eventually Heathrow West, will be built instead.

Interaction with existing Heathrow

How the runway interacts with the rest of the airfield will be a crucial factor in any design, for example aircraft trying to reach satellite terminal 6B, which will be north of the runway, could either cross the runway or taxi around the end.

But expansion will bring challenges for the environment as more people travel further distances to reach the runway. Facing those challenges will be difficult, but necessary – as Wilbraham understands.

“There are things that are going to change out there, and any harm that we do needs to be properly mitigated,” he says.

Keeping landside traffic at today’s levels is a requirement set out in the draft NPS, and something Wilbraham already has plans for.

Employees are encouraged to use public transport, while electric cars are ubiquitous on site. Heathrow is working with Network Rail on two rail schemes, Western Rail and Southern Rail.  Some of the burden will also be taken by Crossrail, which opens well before the new runway.

Even with these plans, is keeping landside traffic at today’s levels a feasible ambition?

“I think it’s key, really,” says Wilbraham.


We absolutely want to build as much of this development offsite as we possibly can

“I think in this area of London, development needs to be bringing all sorts of different things together, and certainly Heathrow can only cope with so many cars, the M25 can only cope with so many cars, and therefore we need to find a way to ensure that we’re not making that worse for people who live round here.

“We really do want to set new standards around sustainability.”

And that is not just environmental sustainability. Wilbraham has big plans for the new terminal.

Together with architect Grimshaw, ideas are being drawn up for a “lightweight canopy” which would house a number of shops and restaurants in a large open space. As a crossover between an indoor and outdoor space, the canopy area would require minimal heating or cooling – making it greener and cheaper.

Changing the feel

“That is something completely new and innovative, and would change the feel of terminal buildings probably forever,” says Wilbraham.

Although it is still early days, the logistics of delivering the terminal are also being considered now – along with what is expected from the supply chain.

“We absolutely want to build as much of this development offsite as we possibly can,” says Wilbraham.

“We’re looking for the construction supply chain, along with the design supply chain, to come up with ways of building more offsite than we’ve ever done before.”

This is because transporting the 14,000 to 15,000 construction operatives needed onsite would be a huge challenge.

Offsite construction

Constructing parts offsite would also be safer – and develop the supply chain across the country.

“We absolutely believe the right way to do this is to be building stuff away from the south east of England, because there is so much opportunity in the rest of the country, and so many places where there are great companies doing great engineering.

“We don’t need to bring all those people here, we could operate and work with them offsite at different places,” says Wilbraham.

He hopes by creating “innovation hubs” across the UK, SMEs will be able to grow.

“The aim is to create something that is sustainable. So what we don’t want to do is create a hub in the north east of England, we use it for 10 years, we leave and it falls apart,” he says.

See Phil Wilbraham live

  • Phil Wilbraham will be speaking at New Civil Engineer’s Airports Conference in London on 18 May. Quote NCEREADER to claim a 15% discount. Click here for more information.

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