Top UK airports announce expansion plans to increase passenger growth

Four leading UK airports announced ambitious expansion plans to help them achieve future record levels of passenger growth, though most of these plans have been put on hold as a result of COVID-19.

With passenger levels set to begin recovery during summer 2021, we take a look at the current status of each of these airports and the future of their expansion plans.

Gatwick Airport

Heathrow Airport

The UK’s largest airport, London Heathrow, revealed plans for a GBP 14 billion third runway back in 2018, which was hoped to allow take off of 700 more planes. The plan was met with anger by environmentalists as the decision would see increases in carbon commissions. The UK courts, however, have recently overturned a judgement declaring that Heathrow’s third runway was illegal. The overturn has made way for project plans to resume, though it’s uncertain if this will go ahead due to the great amount of opposition.

Heathrow Chief Executive Officer, John Holland-Kaye, explained, “We have a robust plan to expand Britain’s hub airport, unlocking billions in growth and creating tens of thousands of new skilled jobs – from Plymouth to Perth and Swansea to Southend. With strong cross-party support and a united voice from business and unions – MPs must finally seize the opportunity to expand Heathrow and secure a prosperous future for all of Britain.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Heathrow was one of the busiest airports in the world. During 2020, Heathrow airport handled just 22.1 million passengers, in comparison to 80.9 million in 2019.

Gatwick Airport

Meanwhile, Gatwick Airport also announced a new GBP 1.1 billion investment plan over five years, which would aim to help boost passenger numbers by around 8 million.

The proposal included ideas for airline growth and airport enhancement for passengers. Providing additional capacity, improving resilience and harnessing technology are all important parts of Gatwick’s plan.

The airport’s Chief Executive, Stewart Wingate unveiled the new five-year Capital Investment Plan (CIP) for Gatwick Airport at the British-Irish Airports Expo in London, with the airport planning to spend GBP 1.11 billion up to 2023.

Wingate said, “Gatwick is a major piece of national infrastructure, and our continued growth and ability to attract long-haul airlines is vital for the health of the UK economy, particularly in a post-Brexit world. We are exploring ways to grow our capacity, including developing new systems and processes to handle more passengers, and considering how we use all our existing infrastructure in the future. By committing to spend another GBP 1.11 billion, Gatwick can continue to grow sustainably, attract new airlines and offer more global connections, while providing an excellent service to passengers.”

Whilst COVID-19 has significantly impacted Gatwick’s airport operations in 2020/21, the airport still aims to continue with plans to convert an emergency runway into a full second runway. Wingate confirmed that planning permission will aim to be secured in 2023. Gatwick’s has seen dramatic reductions in passengers during 2020, decreasing by 78%.

Gatwick says it is committed to exploring how to grow sustainably, while supporting the local and national economy, improving facilities and continuing to transform services for passengers. It has also identified emerging projects which look to harness technology to further improve efficiency and service.  Examples of these include an integrated command and airport operations centre, robotic car parking and a Smart taxiway lighting system.

Cardiff Airport

Cardiff airport has seen one of the biggest passenger declines out of all UK airports, with an 87% decrease in 2020 levels year-on-year. Prior to the pandemic, Cardiff airport became increasingly popular, seeing 10% passenger growth from Q4 2018 to Q4 2019. The Welsh airport went on to rank number 7 out of a list of the UK’s 21 most successful airports.

A recent development for the airport is Wizz airlines’ decision to choose Cardiff as its fourth UK base. The introduction of Wizz airlines to Cardiff airport will see a number of new flight routes including options for Palma and Corfu as well as creating 40 new jobs.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Roger Lewis, Chairman at Cardiff Airport stated “we have a clear vision for the future and ambitious long-term plans for growth. The key for the year ahead is to consolidate our position and to continue to diversify our business by making the best use of all of our facilities. Improving our customer offering will be front of mind for us all. That said, there are even greater opportunities ahead of us, and we are confident that we can continue to grow over the course of the next 12 months.”

Stansted Airport

During 2020, Stansted Airport saw passenger traffic decrease by 73%, though remained the most stable out of all other airports within the Manchester Airports Group (MAG).

Stansted began a planning appeal in January in a bid to continue expansions to the airport to a similar size as Gatwick.

Ken O’Toole, CEO of Stansted Airport stated that more could be done to improve Stansted as an economic driver. “We know that we have even more potential, not only as an economic driver for the region but also by providing greater international connectivity to UK plc. We submitted our planning application to increase the number of passengers the airport is permitted to serve each year by 8 million to 43 million per annum and made a commitment to do this within our existing permissions for flight movements and noise.”

“The reaction to our plans from the business community, in particular, has been very positive with support coming from across the region from SMEs to giants such as AstraZeneca in Cambridge and the universities of Essex and Cambridge, all highlighting the airport’s role as the biggest single site employer in the East of England and an enabler of global trade”.