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Virgin Atlantic 787 shot from a BA A350 at London Heathrow

Expectations of London Heathrow’s third runway being operational by 2026 were dealt a significant blow this week by the UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA said Heathrow must curb its upfront spending on development work until the remaining legislative hurdles for the scheme have been overcome.

Despite obtaining Government approval to build the controversial third runway, Heathrow doesn’t yet have the green light to begin construction work. The work includes demolishing homes in nearby villages. The airport’s owner needs planning permission from the local authorities before it can begin compulsory purchases of land and the properties. Until the planning permission is obtained, the bulldozers cannot move. Campaigners are currently challenging the government’s decision in the Court of Appeal.

Passengers could pick up the bill

The CAA was unhappy with Heathrow spending £2.6bn on preparatory construction work for the third runway project and insisted it was cut to £1.6bn. The CAA claimed that the costs would inevitably have to be picked up by air passengers, should the third runway not get the planning permission.

Heathrow responded, saying that cutting the upfront spend would slow the delivery timeline of the third runway project and claimed construction would likely run until 2029.

HEATHROW FACTSHEET

Heathrow handled 80 million passengers in 2018, with 2 runways
- Paris Charles de Gaulle handled 72 million, with 4 runways
- Amsterdam Schiphol handled 71 million, with 6 runways

Heathrow is estimated to be operating at 98% capacity, with flight movements capped at 480,000 a year.
Passenger growth has been achieved through increasing the use of large aircraft.

Heathrow currently hosts five of the top ten highest-grossing airline routes in the world. British Airways' route to
New York JFK brings in more than $1 billion per year for the airline.
High route profitability at Heathrow is reason it's popular with airlines, particularly on long-haul routes.

30 years of talk

So, imminent Heathrow expansion seems to have been cast into yet further doubt, with delivery kicked-out by least a further 3 years. Some observers could be forgiven for thinking the CAA’s prudence hints that it doesn’t believe the third runway will ever be built. The UK’s current Prime Minister, Boris Johnston, is an ardent critic of the proposal. He, along with many others, suggest an additional runway should be built at another location, with London Gatwick being a close contender.

It’s widely reported that another runway is needed in South Eastern England to ease the congestion at Heathrow and Gatwick. With expansion now at least a decade away, and talk of a third runway at Heathrow now into its third decade, most doubt it’ll ever happen.

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