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Exclusive | How Heathrow plans to cut expansion costs

heathrow cgi
  • It could be 2035 before the full expansion infrastructure is up and running, while passengers could move between terminals in driverless pods to save cash on transit tunnels.
  • Wilbraham categorically confirms third runway will cross M25, but engineers are still working out how to do it.
  • Heathrow could become a national coach hub to boost public transport journey share.

A year to the day after the government gave Heathrow expansion the green light, it reopened the public consultation to take into account updated information on, among other issues, air quality impacts.

Fresh modelling appears to show that expanding Gatwick could be the greener option as it seems less likely to breach air quality regulations than Heathrow’s third runway. Meanwhile the revised draft Airports National Policy Statement also shows that expanding Gatwick would produce an economic return for Britain of £75.3bn compared to Heathrow’s £74.2bn.

Heathrow Airport said it had been expecting the consultation to be reopened after the government’s updated air quality plan was published in July, as any changes could affect its expansion bid, but the news comes amid a raft of delays for the scheme.

A vote on expansion in Parliament has been pushed back from this winter to the first half of 2018, as a result of June’s snap election. Heathrow’s own consultation on expansion options has been delayed from August until early next year after consultation with airlines.

Could the case for expansion at Heathrow collapse?

“It doesn’t feel wobbly at all. We are on track to deliver the runway when we said we were going to and we’re working very hard to stick with those dates,” said Heathrow expansion programme director Phil Wilbraham, adding the Airports Commission had thrown its weight unequivocally behind Heathrow’s third runway.

Site investigations for the runway started at Heathrow on 8 September, led by Amec Foster Wheeler and carried out by Fugro.

Heathrow is confident it will get its third runway. So far its integrated design team, made up of concept architect Grimshaw, engineering firms Mott MacDonald, Amec Foster-Wheeler, Jacobs, Atkins, and Arup, and planning consultants Quod, has had a year of planning. What options are being considered?

Cost cutting

In a bid to shave £6bn from the £17bn project, expansion components such as new taxiways, terminals and baggage facilities could be built in stages.

Taxiway construction could be phased, as could terminal buildings. It means that while the runway itself is on track to be delivered by 2025, it could be 2035 before all the components are up and running.

“This is really about the on-airport facilities being built at the right time,” said Wilbraham.

“So you could say, when we opened Terminal 5, that we opened a 30M passenger terminal in one day. Did we really need to do that? Or could we have done it in stages?”

At the moment Heathrow’s terminal buildings still have room for roughly 7M extra passengers per year.

Other cost-cutting measures are also being considered. Instead of building an underground passenger transit system to the new terminal, passengers could take a bus, or one of Heathrow’s driverless pods instead.

“Connectivity is quite expensive. So ultimately, we are going to want to come up with a masterplan that’s got really good connectivity for passengers and bags, but with as little infrastructure as possible,” said Wilbraham.

Runway details

Wilbraham confirmed that the north-west runway will clash with the M25.

“The north-west runway was always going to go over the M25,” he said.

“There are always other options, but through the work we have now done, we can absolutely, categorically confirm, the north-west runway will go over the M25.”

The expansion team is still considering at what level it should cross the motorway. However, it is most likely that the motorway will be moved to the west by 100m to 150m, and lowered between 3m and 6m. Wilbraham has previously said the runway could be carried over the M25 across a series of viaducts.

In July, hotel chain Arora Group, which owns 57 properties at Heathrow Airport, released its own expansion plans created with engineering firm Bechtel. The group said it could save £1.5bn on expansion costs by not breaching the M25. This would involve reducing the runway length from 3,500m to 3,200m and moving it 500m to the east; something previously ruled out by the Airports Commission due to higher noise impacts on residents.

Surface access

This week an updated air quality report warned that expansion at Heathrow could jeopardise London’s ability to comply with EU air quality legislation as fast as it would like. Better surface access to Heathrow remains a priority to get more cars off the roads.

Currently around 40% of passenger journeys to the airport are on public transport, and Wilbraham is confident that Heathrow can hit its pledge to increase this to 50% by 2030. Crossrail will help add capacity, as will the Piccadilly Line extension, Western Rail Access and possibly Southern Rail Access.

But more must be done. One option being considered is to turn Heathrow into a national coach hub with routes serving more towns and cities, increasing the potential for passengers to use public transport.

“Our central terminal area bus and coach station is the second biggest in the country,” said Wilbraham.

“We believe there is a great opportunity, as we expand, to enhance particular coach facilities in and out of Heathrow, such that more towns are connected to Heathrow by coach.”

To discourage car use and combat poor air quality, setting up an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) or congestion charging zone around the airport is a possibility.

“There’s carrots and sticks in this debate, if you like. The carrots are the public transport options and the potential sticks then are the potential congestion zones,” said Wilbraham.


Heathrow plans to consult on its expansion options early next year with a view to submitting a Development Consent Order (DCO) application in 2020.

It is later than originally planned, but Wilbraham says a lot has been achieved in one year.

“To get to a place where we’ve now got a sensible set of options that we can consult on in the new year, when we looked at that it was a serious challenge,” he said.

“We want our team, the Heathrow team, the supply chain, everyone around this to really feel part of something that’s really exciting,” 


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