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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on December 9, 2009

Europe's runway race

Europe is running out of runway space – so what can it do about it? Stephen Vaughan investigates.

With the aviation industry in the midst of its worst-ever crisis, the matter of Europe’s runway capacity may not seem particularly pressing. After all, as of October, European airports were up to 14 consecutive months of traffic decline, and by the end of 2009 they will have collectively lost more than 105 million passengers. And all current signs indicate that a recovery, when it comes, will be extremely gradual.

Yet on account of increasingly long lead times required for airport development, runway capacity is an issue that has to be considered with a long-term view.

Indeed, most experts agree that notwithstanding the present crisis, air traffic demand in Europe will still double by 2030 compared to 2007 levels.

“If you want to provide enough airport capacity to handle such demand, you need to plan for that now, and that is precisely what European airports are doing,” says ACI Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec.

“Despite the crisis, they have confirmed the bulk of their capital investment programmes which collectively stand at €50 billion for the period 2008-2013. Current plans for the future provide for five new Greenfield airports and 79 new runways in Europe. This will be equivalent to a 41% capacity increase in the European airport network.”

Problems remain, however, as even if all airports are able to complete their plans, such capacity increases will still leave Europe 11% short of demand by 2030.

Speaking at the recent Airport Regions Conference (ARC) conference in Amsterdam, Eurocontrol’s director general, David McMillan, said: “Our Challenges of Growth 2008 concluded that under the most likely forecast scenario, airport capacity will lag demand by some 2.3 million flights by 2030, even if current expansion plans can be delivered.

“Demand concentrates geographically and over time on large airports and airport systems. Although secondary airports provide some relief, they may not be where passengers want to go and demand may return to the main hubs in spite of congestion there.

“This compounds the environmental question: the greater the capacity shortfall, the greater the rise of environmental impact – both at an overall systems level and at a local level – with flights waiting to takeoff, using suboptimal flight profiles, circling before landing and waiting for arrival gates to become available. If nothing is done, there could be another 30 Heathrows in Europe by 2030!”

Perhaps a greater concern is the ability or otherwise of airports to effectively deliver their plans in the face of increasing political pressure and environmental campaigning.

David Gamper, ACI World’s director of safety and terminal affairs, notes: “Much is being done to increase the capacity in the skies in the context of the Single European Sky and that will lead to greater pressure on airport capacity.

“The most obvious and economic answer would be to build more runways at existing airports but most of the time this is not easy. The principal problem is that since Europe is a relatively small continent with many land-locked airports surrounded by other developments, there is very little space to expand.

“Of course, there are other airports that have less difficulties but by definition they are not generally situated where the traffic wants to go.”

Unlike in the United States where development is centrally co-ordinated, in Europe it is left to individual airports to respond to demand and resolve its own plans. As we shall explore, mature airports in the major cities of Europe have a whole host of obstacles to overcome if they are to develop new runways.

Nothing encapsulates the difficulties surrounding new developments like Heathrow’s proposed third runway.

After receiving a green light in January 2009, the UK Government’s approval of a new runway was recently endorsed by MPs and the House of Commons transport committee. Yet the opposition Conservative party, odds-on favourites at this year’s General Election, has stated categorically that should they win, “there will be no third runway”.

Even if expansion were to go ahead, the vagaries of the UK planning system that saw T5 take over 20 years to complete could yet affect the process, as could the strength of the protest in and around Heathrow.

The villages of Sipson, Harmondsworth and Harlington will be affected, with 700 homes, a primary school and a graveyard bulldozed, and listed buildings lost. Last year, Greenpeace members bought land on the proposed runway site. The field was split into small squares and sold across the world in order to maximise the opportunity to place legal obstacles in the way of expansion.

The UK Government’s argument is that, with Heathrow’s runways operating at capacity, the gateway is on the brink of suffering a decline in connectivity, thereby increasing delays when flights are disrupted and risking competing airports gaining the upper hand.

It is estimated that building a third runway will bring €6.1 billion of economic benefits between 2020 and 2080. Yet as a counterbalance, the World Development Movement has claimed that the additional flights will emit the same annual volume of CO2 as the whole of Kenya. Even if a third runway is built, it is unlikely to be completed before 2020.

Earlier this year Frankfurt Airport officially broke ground on its new fourth runway that it believes will secure its long-term future “viability and competitiveness”.

The runway, more than 10 years in the planning due to Germany’s extended approval procedures, is expected to be inaugurated in time for the 2011 winter schedules.

It will mean that Frankfurt Airport’s runway system will be able to accommodate 700,000 aircraft movements annually – 200,000 more than today – and up to 88mppa by 2020.

The airport claims that the north-west runway is the key element of its recently approved €4 billion expansion plan and, without it, warn that Frankfurt’s status as a financial centre will be threatened.

It remains a controversial addition with local residents, however, and the green light for its construction has come at a cost with the State of Hesse reducing the number of night flights allowed at Frankfurt Airport from 40 to maximum of 17 between 11pm and 5am.

Campaigners called for an outright ban and with the Hesse government widely expected to further reduce the number of night flights following a state court ruling that it should review its decision, Lufthansa Cargo has announced its intention to appeal against the new restrictions.

The airline claims that the restrictions threaten the existence of its freight business. “We want to avoid a ban on night flights,” says Lufthansa CEO, Wolfgang Mayrhuber.

In 2008, 15,000 people marched in protest at possible new runways in both Munich and Stuttgart.

Indeed, across Europe airport expansion plans are polarising opinion, with governments and businesses consistently claiming expansion is key to the growth of the economy whilst local and environmental campaigners protest about noise levels and the impact upon the environment.

And whilst the likes of Heathrow and Frankfurt are able to raise the necessary cash to fund runway development, they are only two of the 79 runways cited by ACI. All the others must find finance during the worst depression in 80 years for runway developments that for the most part are unlikely to see the light of day for twenty years.

“The economic damage to an airport that has to turn away demand is immense,” says Angela Gittens, director general of ACI World. “Ultimately it leads to a reduction in demand – but the damage is done long before that.”

European hubs need to keep in step with growing demand otherwise their status and that of the local economy will suffer as traffic shifts to nearby airports, other European hubs, and beyond. “The Middle East is already developing international gateways because they see that Europe is becoming saturated,” concludes Gittens. “Unless Europe’s airports can do something about it, and fast, many of them are facing a future where they are no longer the international hubs they once were.”

Airport World 2009 - Issue 6

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