Heathrow Airport is 98% full – but wants more flights

Simon Calder


Britain’s biggest airport could soon have an extra 68 flights a day squeezed in on the world’s busiest pair of runways.

Heathrow Airport hopes to expand operations by up to 5 per cent whether or not a third runway is built.

As the West London airport launched a consultation into the biggest changes to airspace patterns in 50 years, it also revealed plans for “a short-term change to the way aircraft arrive at Heathrow” that could increase resilience – and squeeze in almost 25,000 flights a year.

To do so would require the 480,000 annual cap on aircraft movements, imposed in 2002 as a condition for building Heathrow Terminal 5, to be lifted.

At present all but 5,000 of the permitted slots at Heathrow are used; the “spare” slots are at times such as late evenings, Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings when demand is light.

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The key proposal is for a move to “independent parallel approaches” (IPA) when both runways are being used for landings.

While the standard operation at Heathrow involves one runway being used for arrivals and the other for departures, at busy times for arrivals – particularly early mornings – both can be used for touchdowns. But strict rules on sequencing mean that simultaneous landings cannot happen.

A Heathrow Airport spokesperson said: “Because Heathrow operates at 98 per cent of its capacity, disruption or delays during the day can have a knock-on effect to the punctuality of flights.

“To mitigate this, we are always looking to improve how we manage aircraft arriving at Heathrow during particularly busy periods, and one of the ways to do this is through the introduction of new technology such as Independent Parallel Approaches [IPA].

“IPA will not only be beneficial for our passengers by improving punctuality, and preventing flight cancellations and delays – it will also help to reduce the number of late running flights into the night which are disruptive to local communities.”

But while initially the focus would be on increasing resilience, the move would also provide the opportunity to increase arrivals by 10 per cent – representing almost 25,000 additional movements.

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The airport stressed: “We would like to introduce IPA even if we do not get approval to build a third runway.”

In the consultation document, Heathrow revealed that some of the flight paths used for IPA “could overfly areas that are not affected by Heathrow arrivals today”.

Forty-two months ago, the Davies Commission unanimously recommended a third runway at Heathrow. While no significant works have begun, the airport says the new runway is on track to open in 2026, with the project costing £14bn.

Radical changes to airspace will be necessary ahead of a new runway opening, and Heathrow is asking local residents for their preferences for a range of arrival and departure patterns.

John Stewart, chair of HACAN, representing residents under the Heathrow flight paths, said: “A lot of West London will be badly hit by these proposals but there will be many other communities who will be relieved at the prospect of all-day flying coming to an end.

“It amounts to a near-revolution to Heathrow’s flight paths.”

The Airspace & Future Operations consultation runs until 4 March.