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Special report | Heathrow expansion


Government has decided. Heathrow is the best place to build extra runway capacity in the South East. The time for industry debate has passed.

Now what the industry needs to do is to make sure this thing is deliverable; that it unites to tackle the environmental and surface access challenges. And it must fundamentally show that this thing will be delivered on time and on budget.

What is needed is for the industry to get behind Heathrow so that it is so much harder for government to change its mind and go cold on the whole thing – which, let’s face it, it has done many times before and could so easily do again.


Heathrow cgi

Source: Heathrow Airport

Heathrow will be remodelled around two major terminals, Heathrow East (background) and Heathrow West (foreground)

That, in short, is what Heathrow is asking right now.

“What we’ve done is proved the case,” says Heathrow Airport Ltd programme director Phil Wilbraham. Wilbraham is a Heathrow veteran, having delivered much of the transformation of Heathrow over the last 10 years. He will now support executive director Emma Gilthorpe in taking the third runway project through its delivery phase. “We have proved that nationally it is needed; proved that locally it is needed. Now we absolutely have to deliver this within the constraints we have,” he asserts.

“What we now need is a confidence to say to the government that we can deliver it,” adds co-programme director Tony Caccavone.

Stakeholder engagement

Caccavone joined Heathrow Airport Ltd to lead the project through its crucial lobbying phase and will now lead efforts to engage with airlines and other stakeholders.

“We need the industry to work with us to come up with the innovative solutions that will tackle the technical and environmental issues,” he stresses.

And it is no bad ask. After all, creating the third runway will deliver up to £21bn in economic benefits across the UK by taking the airport’s capacity from 474,000 flight movements per year to 740,000. This, ultimately, is what it is all about. Currently, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Madrid’s main airports can all handle more flights than Heathrow and, as a result, can provide more links to more of the emerging economies worldwide.

We absolutely have to deliver this within the constraints we have

Phil Wilbraham, Heathrow Airport Ltd

But there are detractors and there are challengers. London mayor Sadiq Khan is one: he has signalled his support for a potential legal challenge by revealing that he has directed Transport for London to provide expert advice and assistance to affected borough councils, including Hillingdon, Richmond, Wandsworth and Windsor & Maidenhead. Those local authorities will been joined by Greenpeace UK in their legal challenge of the government’s decision to go ahead with the third Heathrow runway, and Transport for London is likely to be named as an interested party.

And they have plenty of time to build their case. The final green light for the scheme has yet to be granted, as the proposal will now be subject to a vote by Parliament, which is not expected until late 2017 or early 2018.

Heathrow would then be required to apply for planning permission with support of government policy. This is likely to happen in mid-2019 with Heathrow hoping, if all goes to plan, to receive a Development Consent Order – planning permission – in 2021. Clearly that is a long time for objectors to have their say and lobby for government policy to change, not least when there is the small matter of a General Election in 2020.

Pushing for industry support

So Heathrow is really pushing for industry support, and is wasting absolutely no time in building its

delivery teams. Indeed, its programme client partners and now – this month – its integrated design team members are all already appointed.

“We are doing this,” asserts Wilbraham, adding that the speed with which contracts have been awareded proves that Heathrow is ready to go. “We signed contracts the day after the decision and are already paying these people,” he says.

And it is building momentum. Already Wilbraham reckons on there being a 50-strong team internally dedicated to the runway project, with a further 20 from the programme client partners on the project delivery panel, and another 10 or so on the design team. “And that will build to a team of 40 to 50 by Christmas, and by Easter it will be 100 to 200,” he adds.

And it is quite a team.

We don’t want this to be a special project on the side

Phil Wilbraham, Heathrow Airport Ltd

“We have drawn on the absolute best in the UK construction industry,” says Wilbraham. “Indeed, the majority of our team will be from UK consultants and contractors,” he adds.

Heathrow has four trusted advisors as its programme client partners: Mace to do construction planning, Turner & Townsend to do cost and commercial management, Arup to advise on the technical briefs and CH2M to beef up Heathrow’s programme management.

Heathrow, of course, has a strong track record of delivering major infrastructure projects anyway: indeed, it points to the fact that since opening Terminal 5 (T5) , 10 years ago, it has spent £11bn on various projects, including Terminal 2, all delivered on time and on budget.

How to deliver 

So it has a pretty clear idea of how it is going to deliver this project. And it is not by creating some kind of separately financed special purpose vehicle in the way that Thames Water has done to get the Thames Tideway Tunnel built.

“We’ve got shareholders who are keen to invest in UK infrastructure,” states Wilbraham. “And we’ve got a track record of finding the funding,” adds Caccavone, referencing the £11bn recently spent on improvements.

External contractors and consultants will be working with Heathrow’s in-house delivery team.

“We are absolutely convinced we want to do this the way we do all our programmes,” says Wilbraham. “We don’t want this to be a special project on the side. We want to be able to move people in and out as the needs demand.”

Operation personnel involved

And crucially, operations people are in from the start. “We had some very painful learning after the Terminal 5 opening,” recalls Caccavone, referring to the major operational issues Heathrow had with T5’s baggage system. “We’ve learnt you get a far better return for customers if you have an integrated team. So we’ve got dedicated operations people helping us shape the strategic brief.”

Helping to shape that strategic brief will be the integrated design team. This comprises designers such as Jacobs and Atkins currently working elsewhere on the Heathrow estate and new additions Mott MacDonald, Amec Foster Wheeler, planning consultant Quod and architect Grimshaw.

It all adds up to a blend of experience and new thinking, says Wilbraham. “Some of the people coming to join this team are people who work here a lot. But Atkins and Jacobs, for example, have been doing a lot of work in the United States, and they are bringing people over who have been involved that,” he explains.

Construction options

That’s crucial, he says, as the project team spends the next year working up options for how the runway will be built and how the airport can be reconfigured to service it. All that is really set in stone right now is that there will be a new, 3,500m long runway to the north-west of the existing runway, spanning out over the M25. How that will be constructed, and how it will be connected up to the existing airport infrastructure is still up for discussion. Current thinking is for the airport to be reconfigured with two main terminals – Heathrow East, centred around an expanded Terminal 2 and Heathrow West, centred around an expanded Terminal 5.

But all could change as Heathrow looks to build a cutting edge, world-class facility that will be bang up to date when the runway opens in the mid-2020s. To do that means Heathrow keeping its options open for as long as practically possible.

First consultation phase

“Next year, the work is to get ready for a first consultation on options in August or September,” explains Wilbraham. “We’ll use the results of that to get to a preferred option by the end of 2018, but that will still be an option,” he continues.

This will be consulted on again before the plans are nailed down and Heathrow submits its planning application in mid-2019.

But even then, flexibility will be essential. “The design brief will never be fully fixed and we will need to be able to respond to technologies and other changes that come our way,” says Caccavone.

“One of the things we have to develop is flexible designs, as we really don’t know how things will look 15 years out,” he stresses.

That’s the challenge – how to innovate with flexible design

Tony Caccavone, Heathrow Airport Ltd

It is a real challenge, given some fairly fundamental decisions will need to be nailed down relatively early. The most obvious example of this is in the provision of space for check-in and security. Terminals 2 and 5 have vastly different allocations of space for these, highlighting the changes in need since T5 opened 10 years ago. “Terminal 2’s check-in area is much smaller than T5’s as check-in is becoming automated and people are taking less luggage,” says Wilbraham. But in contrast, T2’s security area is much larger to accommodate the changing needs there. What will the new Heathrow need?

“That’s the challenge – how to innovate with flexible design,” stresses Caccavone.

Offsite construction

“And how do we do that more efficiently, using offsite construction and then assembling it onsite using digital engineering?” asks Wilbraham. “Our job as client is to create an environment to design really creatively,” explains Wilbraham, “to allow all the great ideas and creativity to come through in a timely manner.”

And if they do, Wilbraham sees a big win for the British construction industry.

“We can leave a lasting legacy here,” he stresses. “There are enough people out there talking about changing how we deliver, about digital engineering. We’ve got a massive opportunity here, but we can’t do it alone – we need the industry to help with that.”

Agreeing construction price

As the process unfolds, agreeing a price for construction that satisfies regulator the Civil Aviation Authority and Heathrow’s customers – the airlines – will be key.

Increases to landing charges to pay for the £17.6bn project have yet to be really discussed, but they are expected to be significant. And while Heathrow estimates that, without expansion, passengers will be paying £300 more per return ticket by 2030 anyway due to excess demand, airlines are sure to want to drive a hard bargain.

Design again will be crucial, not least as the terminal buildings will be the single most expensive item at £4.8bn. “And that’s where my role really comes in,” explains Caccavone. “There is no point designing and building something the airlines don’t want to pay for,” he says. “We need to understand what airlines will want in the future.”

Right infrastructure

“We will build the right infrastructure for our customers,” adds Wilbraham. “That’s why we need to develop the options. Some will be architecturally beautiful, some will be more box-like.”

And box-like does not need to mean cheap and nasty looking, adds Wilbraham. Earlier this year Wilbraham went on a world-tour, looking at four of the newest, most outstanding airports. One that really stood out, says Wilbraham, was Terminal 4 at Singapore Changi. “It is a bit more box-like, but the way they have fitted it out is providing a great passenger experience,” he says. “They have done a great job.”

Contractors will also be key to delivering efficient construction, as they will be assisting with phasing of the works to deliver what is needed when it is needed. And while much of the thinking right now is about getting the design fundamentals right, Wilbraham has not forgotten the contractors – and the value in getting early involvement from them.

Cost estimates

“We have used our norms to create our cost estimates, and where we don’t have norms we’ve used Turner & Townsend’s global bank of similar projects,” explains Wilbraham. “We know we can be more efficient than that but we haven’t factored that in yet,” he adds.

There clearly will be opportunities for savings; the Airports Commission itself suggested that Heathrow could shave £1.7bn off its £17.6bn cost projection. So savings are there to be had.

“Next year we will be looking at how we are going to package the work and how to get contractors involved,” explains Wilbraham. “Mace will help with that but it doesn’t have all the answers, so we’ll look for help on that so that come the end of 2018 we will have contracts in place and can start to get contractors on board and explore how we are really going to deliver.”

All with that end-game in mind: “So that on all fronts we are building confidence around delivery so that it is so much harder for anyone to change their mind,” says Wilbraham.

Since the early 1970s both the area and the number of people within Heathrow’s noise footprint have fallen around tenfold despite the number of flights doubling. Proposals for a third runway will involve further noise reductions.



Analysis by the Airports Commission found that, 200,000 fewer people would be affected by noise from an expanded Heathrow compared to today.

By the time a third runway opens, 90% of Heathrow’s air traffic will be quieter, as next-generation aircraft such as the Airbus A380, Boeing 787 and Airbus A320 NEO come into service.

A third runway at Heathrow will be further west than previous proposals, which means aircraft approaching over West London will be at higher altitudes.

The runway is also 3,500m long, meaning many aircraft will be able to land further along it – still having time to stop safely while enhancing noise reduction for local communities as well.

And by introducing steeper angles of descent, which Heathrow has recently trialled, it can cut noise for surrounding communities even further.


Surface access

Air quality is a major issue for Heathrow and a major factor is road traffic in the area around it. Hence boosting the numbers of passengers and workers arriving by public transport is crucial to expansion plans.

Between now and 2032, a raft of improvements including Crossrail, Western Rail Access, High Speed 2 access via Old Oak Common and Southern Rail Access are expected to make it easier and quicker to get to Heathrow by rail. It is estimated the trains per hour to Heathrow will double, and seat capacity will almost treble with these upgrades. The volume of passengers using public transport is expected to increase above 45% by 2030, and to almost 60% by 2040 as a result.





Readers' comments (1)

  • Key to the delivery of the Heathrow expansion is getting surface access right and on time. Whilst I am confident that the road access will be sorted and the Elizabeth Line will be delivered, equally critical to the project is the rail connection to the south. Promises were made and then broken with regard to terminals 4 and 5 - let's ensure that the new rail improvements are in place and fully operational long before the expansion is completed.

    Anil Iyer, CEng FICE

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