For many years Gatwick was the world’s busiest single-runway airport, although it lost top spot to Mumbai in 2015. The title was always a bit of a misnomer though as Gatwick has had two airstrips for almost 40 years. The fundamental problem is that it can only use one at a time as they are only 192m apart, too close to permit parallel landings and takeoffs. Perhaps more important though is an agreement with West Sussex County Council dating back to 1979, prohibiting simultaneous use of both airstrips. As a result the second piece of concrete is confined to emergency or backup use only, typically when the main runway is obstructed or closed for repairs. But that 40-year agreement with the council is due to expire next year.
A new Master Plan issued by the airport says that growth over the next 15 years will be stifled by limited runway capacity. It goes on to propose upgrading the 'emergency' runway, using it regularly to create between ten and 15 additional slots per hour at peak times. That would raise capacity from 61m to 70m passengers per annum by 2032. The increases would be achieved by allowing flights to depart on an upgraded secondary airstrip, in between arrivals on the existing main runway. The plan acknowledges that reconfiguring supporting infrastructure – largely relocation of some taxiways and holding points – will also be necessary, but would not significantly impinge on the airfield boundary. It is also claimed that with new generation aircraft getting quieter, the noise footprint of a two-runway Gatwick would remain broadly at today’s levels.
Gatwick's "emergency" runway (centre top) could be used for regular takeoffs under proposals put forward in its new Master Plan. (Photo: Gatwick Airport)
While the change isn’t a done-deal yet – the Master Plan is still out for consultation and the change would need planning approval – managers at Gatwick say of the opportunity to use the secondary runway regularly: “based on current findings, it is one which we may choose to progress in the near future.” They go on to point out that the concept is in line with government support for making best use of existing runways, spelled out in a 2018 policy document.
Opposition - and support
Now this news has left some local residents getting a little upset. They had assumed that government support for a third runway at rival Heathrow in the west of London had largely put paid to the prospect of Gatwick getting another airstrip. How wrong they were. Not only does the Master Plan propose that the secondary runway could be used for regular operations, but on top of that Gatwick’s owners recommend continuing to safeguard the land on which a full second runway could be built in future, which would permit concurrent parallel operations.
Surprisingly then, a poll of 3,000 residents living in Kent, Sussex and Surrey found a majority in favour of Gatwick’s plans. Figures as high as 67% backed growth at the airport, while only 14% were against the developments. Local campaign groups of course have been up in arms about the proposals. Cagne (Campaign Against Gatwick Noise and Emissions) claims that by releasing the results of the poll ahead of public consultation ending in January, “Gatwick is purposely misleading people during this consultation…” and went on to suggest that Gatwick is “seeking a second runway by the back door and deceiving local people and businesses to the true effects of what it will mean.”
OK, the poll does not represent the opinions of everyone living in the counties around Gatwick. But it seems that at least some of the regions workforce – and travellers –look favourably on the ongoing and increasing prosperity a thriving international airport brings to their doorsteps. London Heathrow is full – there are no takeoff or landing slots available. Gatwick is almost full – there are only a few slots on odd days of the week at inconvenient times, especially in the summer. Stansted Airport does have capacity, but it is predominantly used by budget airlines that don’t offer the global connectivity business travellers demand. Operations at London City, London Luton and Southend Airport are confined to short-haul flights, mainly because of runway length constraints. Heathrow’s third runway at is at best eight years away, while the supporting infrastructure is unlikely to be complete before 2028. Even though it would need a government-back Development Consent Order, work to convert Gatwick’s secondary airstrip into a departure runway could be complete before the middle of the next decade.
Making best use of existing infrastructure
Gatwick's growth ambitions were never going to be smothered by the decision to build at Heathrow - and rightly so. The Aviation Oracle believes it makes sense to maximise the use of airfield infrastructure - including runways - that is already available. The government realised that some time ago – possibly driven by a desire to reduce confrontation over major airport projects, but more likely because building new runways isn’t a great idea while there is still room to manoeuvre in the existing system. Converting Gatwick’s secondary / emergency strip into a second runway meets that goal.
Text © The Aviation Oracle