Airport capacity in London is currently underused, says new Assembly report

Posted: 1 May 2013 | Greater London Authority | 1 comment

Airport capacity in London is currently underused with some London airports having more than half of their runway slots free…

Airport capacity in London is currently underused with some London airports having more than half of their runway slots free, says a London Assembly report published today.[1] Even Heathrow – at 99 per cent runway capacity – might potentially fly an additional 20 million passengers every year if larger aircraft were used.[2]

The Transport Committee’s report – Airport Capacity in London – suggests existing airport capacity in London, including at busier Heathrow and Gatwick airports, could be used more effectively[3].

New research commissioned by the Assembly on the usage of London’s airports shows:

  • Stansted Airport: 47 per cent of runway slots are available[4]
  • Luton Airport: 51 per cent of runway slots are available[5]
  • Gatwick Airport: 12 per cent of runway slots are currently available[6]
  • Heathrow Airport: at 99 per cent capacity, Heathrow’s runway capacity is nearly full[7], but some evidence submitted suggests increasing aircraft size would allow it to increase capacity[8]

To encourage passengers to switch from Heathrow, the report says improving transport access from central London to Gatwick, Luton and Stansted is needed – for example, by better rail connections and actively promoting public transport[9]. Stansted Airport Ltd suggested that it could attract 1.5 million more passengers per year if the rail journey time from London was reduced from 45 to 30 minutes.

The report also reveals that in 2010, 127 million people used London’s airports and most, including those using Heathrow, flew direct – point to point – to their destinations (78 per cent) rather than use the airports to transfer, which may question arguments for the need for an additional hub airport to boost London’s economy. Seventy-five per cent of flights from Heathrow, the UK’s only major international hub airport, are short haul[10] and London remains the best connected European city across the 23 fastest growing economies[11].

In addition, runway constraints at Heathrow and other airports might not be the reason for fewer flights to emerging economies, but – as new evidence commissioned for the report shows – postcode preferences by local passengers. Data published by the Committee shows that London’s airports predominantly serve local geographic areas and therefore local demand may be a major influence in determining where airlines chose to fly. In 2010 London airports served 127 million passengers of which approximately two thirds (85 million) were from the East or South East England and 47 million passengers were travelling to or from a London borough.[12]

Local demand for airports must be considered by the Airport Commission in its assessment of the different options for addressing airport capacity including the Mayor’s proposal for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Evidence submitted from National Air Traffic Services (NATS) shows other issues would also need to be considered if a site to the east of London is chosen, including airspace implications with the potential for additional flights and lower flight paths over central London.[13]

Caroline Pidgeon, Chair of the London Assembly’s Transport Committee, said:

“Evidence we received shows that the Airport Commission must examine whether better use of existing airport capacity could be an intelligent cost-effective alternative to building new airports or runways.

“The need for additional hub capacity is also under debate, with strong data showing rather than runway capacity limiting airlines ability to fly to emerging markets, it could be low passenger demand from each airport’s geographical area. As 700,000 residents already suffer from noise pollution as a result of Heathrow flights[14], we also hope that any plans to expand Heathrow can soon be laid to rest.

“Currently London sees 130 million passengers traveling through our airports each year. The challenge for the government and decision-makers is to find the best way to support the UK’s economy globally while ensuring Londoners are not adversely affected by worsening noise and air pollution from planes flying over the capital. In the short term using existing capacity in a smarter way may be the most cost effective solution.

Later this year the Airports Commission will produce its interim report[15] on the UK’s future aviation requirements. The Transport Committee’s report seeks to inform its findings.


  1. The Transport Committee’s report, Airport Capacity in London, sets out findings to inform the independent Airports Commission’s interim report due by December 2013. The Committee identifies the following specific issues for the Commission to address:
    – In its interim report on future aviation needs, the Airports Commission should set out how it has taken into account the importance of local demand in determining how airlines use airport capacity.
    – In its interim report, the Airports Commission should show how existing airport capacity in London should be used more effectively including at Heathrow.
    – If the Airports Commission finds that there is a need to increase airport capacity, it should rule out the expansion of Heathrow airport as an option.
  2. Some evidence submitted to the investigation indicated that Heathrow could add a further 20 million passengers per year (mppa) by increasing the numbers of passengers per plane using bigger aircraft such as A380s. London Councils written submission (p3)
  3. In addition to evidence from analysis of Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted (see footnotes 4-7), which was externally commissioned research by York Aviation, London City airport has some spare capacity during the middle of the day, but the strong business profile of the traffic at this airport may limit the potential to develop substantial off-peak operations. In 2011, Farnborough and Biggin Hill airports were major operators in business aviation handling 25,000 and 11,300 air traffic movements respectively. Biggin Hill has stressed to us the role it can play in future in providing private air travel. Regional airports, including Birmingham Airport Ltd, have spare capacity and could help take the pressure off London’s airports.
  4. In summer 2012, around 47 per cent of Stansted Airport’s available runway slots were not used. Figures used in this report are a snapshot of runway availability from summer 2012. Runway availability varies on an hourly basis by season, but this time was selected as critical time for capacity at airports therefore a fairer comparison.
  5. In summer 2012, around 51 per cent of Luton Airport’s available runway slots were not used.
  6. In summer 2012 Gatwick Airport had 717 spare runway slots each week (12 per cent of the total) concentrated in the evening period.
  7. In summer 2012, our analysis showed there were no regular spare slots which would allow an airline to operate a new regular daily scheduled service from Heathrow, running at 99 per cent of its capacity. Heathrow has spare terminal capacity so could accommodate more passengers even though its runways are full.
  8. London Councils’ written submission to investigation
  9. High proportions of passengers use private cars to travel to London airports: Heathrow (38 per cent); Gatwick (42 per cent); Luton (48 per cent); and Stansted (40 per cent). Source: CAA Survey Data 2010
  10. Most people use Heathrow for short-haul not long-haul flights e.g. in July 2012, 75% of flights at Heathrow were short-haul to Western Europe and UK destinations.
  11. London remains the best connected European city across the 23 fastest growing economies. In 2011, Heathrow had more weekly frequencies (4,641) with two runways than other European hub airports such as Frankfurt (4,570) with four runways, Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris (4,508) with four runways and Amsterdam Schiphol (3,983) with five runways.
  12. In 2010, 85 million passengers (65 per cent of passengers flying from London airports) were from the East or South East England; 47 million passengers had origins or destinations in London boroughs.
  13. NATS said as aircraft take off into the wind and this usually blows in a westerly direction any new airport in east London with four runways in an east to west direction would result in more aeroplanes flying over central London. Moreover, to accommodate this extra traffic with the existing air traffic from other London airports, these aircraft would need to fly at a low level over central London.
  14. Environment Committee’s Plane Speaking report, March 2012
  15. The Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, will produce an interim report by December 2013 with recommendations for immediate actions to improve the use of existing runway capacity in the next five years.
Send this to a friend