Is a Third Runway at Heathrow Actually Going to Happen?

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A strong sense of déjà vu hit me when I sat down to write this piece – I imagine the topic of Heathrow Airport expansion has that effect on a lot of people. It turns out it’s been about 20 months since I last looked at why a third runway at Heathrow is probably never going to happen, and I suspect I’ll be writing a similar piece in another year or two.

There’s some political analysis in that previous article which has (surprisingly!) stood the test of time quite well,

Theresa May is quite popular right now both within her Party and in the country, but she has never been loved by either. As an unelected PM, who won the party leadership essentially uncontested, she could quickly find herself with very few friends if something goes wrong (and something always goes wrong)“.

Since then, we had the 2017 General Election, where Mrs May’s performance was widely regarded as the most inept in modern British history – at least by a Prime Minister who called an election when they didn’t have to.

The PM is therefore in a substantially weaker position now than she was back in October 2016 (in the country, Parliament and within the Conservative Party), and getting Heathrow expansion through Parliament, and over all the other hurdles, looked far from a done deal even back then.

What Heathrow Airport could, but probably won’t, look like.

The initial challenge for the Government is persuading enough MPs to vote for a third runway. The vote is expected to take place later this month, and the general view is that it should manage to gather enough support. Personally, I’m not so sure though, as it looks like that support might end up being contingent on the SNP – and if the opportunity arose to give the Government a bloody nose, it would surely be extremely tempting for the SNP to seize it.

There’s a pretty clear majority in the Commons for Heathrow expansion, but when it comes to a vote, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised to see tactical considerations by Labour and the SNP lead to a Government defeat – that’s politics!

Even if we assume the vote passes, that’s really just the beginning of the problems. There will be myriad legal and environmental challenges (which will go on for years), large protests (people who don’t want to see Heathrow expand could make life hell for travellers if they really wanted to), huge practical difficulties (compulsory purchase nightmares, standard big infrastructure risks of over budget and over time), etc, etc. The campaigns against the third runway will be well organised, well funded, and supported by high-profile politicians, activists and celebrities. Protests and legal action will receive heavy media attention, and every (inevitable) mistake and delay will attract strong criticism.

All these challenges could probably (eventually) be overcome by a focused and determined Government, led by an exceptionally capable Secretary of State for Transport and a powerful Prime Minister, able to dedicate large amounts of time and political capital to the project. Without meaning to be unkind, there aren’t many people, on any ‘side’ of politics, who would describe Mr Grayling and Mrs May in such terms…

What do you think – is Heathrow going to get a new runway in the next 20 years?


  1. Andrew H says

    It needs a fourth runway as well as a third. It’s brutally obvious to all Heathrow travellers that there is always a plane traffic jam on the runway, all queuing to take off. It takes ages to get from the gate to being airborne. And there is too much stacking in the air.

    They should have gotten on with a third and fourth runway decades ago.

    • Craig Sowerby says

      You’re right, but NIMBY is quite strong in the UK.

      Which is why I was somewhat surprised when the whole “Boris Island” scheme was laughed out of consideration, when starting over and building a massive airport from nothing is what most other countries would do…

      As a travel hacker, though, I really don’t care. I already avoid Heathrow long-haul thanks to APD. And I prefer LGW and LCY anyhow for short -haul. (something that wouldn’t change if there were even more BA flights filling up the LHR lounges!!!)

  2. Alan says

    That will not change terminal 5 and 3 where built in the wrong places.

    It takes around 15 min from 5 to the runway and 20 min from 3 to the run way.

    You are also mixing all aircraft together.

    Why not bring all uk and european aircraft in and out on one runway this would reduce spaceing and international the big guys in and out on the other where spacing is needed.

    Then you dont need another runway.

    However most of the land near heathrow is owned by the Queen she will not want more aircraft going over Winsor.

    So the answer is no other runway will be built.

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