As Virgin Atlantic doesn't rule out a return to Gatwick Airport, will Heathrow run out of runway?


The debate over how, or even whether, to expand runway capacity in the UK has rumbled on for close to a decade. A decision was finally rubberstamped by parliament, but actual implementation of a third runway at London Heathrow Airport is as far away as ever.

That was partly due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the Airport Commission's chairman said - incredibly - that he could no longer see the point of a third runway there at Heathrow, having approved it only five years earlier.

But passenger traffic and airline capacity is back up again, and knocking on the door of the maximum movements limit.

The CEO of Virgin Atlantic has just gone on record to say that he has no faith that the runway will ever be built, and that if it was, completion would be decades in the future.

Hence, he will probably look again at Gatwick Airport, which his airline abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Heathrow had capacity to spare.

His remarks have refocused attention on the stalemate which is the Heathrow third runway, with lawsuits set to resume if it resurfaces, together with an environmental bombardment to rival that on the Normandy Coast on D-Day (which, coincidentally, took place just two years before three runways at the nascent Heathrow Airport were first considered).

In the meantime, there will be a general election in the UK at the beginning of Jul-2024.

Although transport hasn't even entered the agenda yet, whatever government or coalition emerges out of it will come under pressure to get this matter sorted out once and for all.

  • Virgin Atlantic CEO hints at a potential strategy shift back in favour of London Gatwick Airport: he insists Heathrow Airport’s third runway is off the agenda, and would take three decades to build anyway.
  • London Gatwick will have a second runway in operation by 2030, and Virgin Atlantic could also expand elsewhere in the UK.
  • London remains criminally short of runway capacity, especially at Heathrow and Gatwick, and Heathrow compares badly with peer hub airports globally.
  • London Heathrow’s 2024 movements will be close to the maximum permitted.
  • The result of the Airports Commissions inquiry into runway capacity is well known, but almost a decade on London Heathrow is nowhere nearer getting its third runway.
  • If the third runway suddenly comes back on the agenda, environmental and socially inspired opposition will resurface with a vengeance.
  • Other solutions could still be found, but they would probably require the resurrection of the Airports Commission after this length of time.
  • The new UK government after 04-Jul-2024 will need to tackle this issue urgently, but so far transport has registered zero debate.
  • In the interim, it's not possible to blame Virgin Atlantic for considering London Gatwick again – at least there is some runway infrastructure movement there.

Virgin Atlantic CEO casts serious doubt on Heathrow Airport's third runway…

Virgin Atlantic Airways CEO Shai Weiss, speaking at the IATA Annual General Meeting in Dubai (Jun-2024), said the proposal to develop a third runway at London Heathrow Airport is "off the agenda". Mr Weiss said that even if the third runway were on the agenda, "...it would take 10-15 years of planning, plus 10-15 years to build".

That's probably an exaggeration, but if it is true, it would mean that it could take up until 2054 to open a piece of infrastructure that was first proposed in 1946 - 108 years ago, and just after the end of World War 2.

Unless he knows something that no-one else does, Mr Weiss is probably doing no more than voicing an opinion, and it is one that he has held for several years.

In late 2022 Mr Weiss went on record to state that Virgin Atlantic had withdrawn its support for Heathrow's third runway plans amid a continuing row over charges there, citing the beneficiaries to be the mainly foreign shareholders, including sovereign wealth funds (and which now stand to be joined soon by another one, the Saudi Arabian PIF).

Virgin Atlantic had been one of the most prominent airline backers of expansion there before the COVID-19 pandemic, but drew a line when Heathrow proposed to increase landing charges by 120% - Mr Weiss pointing to "the abuse of power by a de facto monopolistic airport".

…and adds "never say never" where Gatwick Airport is concerned

Mr Weiss added "never say never on Gatwick". This is a comment on the UK capital's second airport (of six), which is situated 30 miles south of central London, which handles a wider range of airline models but only half the passenger traffic at Heathrow.

Adding a second runway at Gatwick was one of many alternatives to one at Heathrow that was considered by the Airports Commission.

The commission was an independent body established by the UK government that examined the potential expansion of the nation's airport capacity between 2012 and 2015, ultimately recommending a third, 'northwest' runway at Heathrow - a decision subsequently endorsed by the UK Parliament in a procedure that spanned seven years in total and at an estimated cost of GBP15 - GBP18 million.

Virgin Atlantic has all but abandoned Gatwick since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Virgin Atlantic had once been a regular user of the airport and, indeed, had operated its first ever flight from there in Jun-1984, exactly 40 years ago.

It has zero capacity at Gatwick today, having shifted many of its routes to Heathrow, where it is the second largest airline by both movements and capacity, although they amount to only 4.3% and 6.2% respectively - well behind British Airways, which has almost half of each.

Mr Weiss went on, "We're constrained at Heathrow. Growth at Heathrow is very difficult. It can operate with about 82 million passengers per annum and it can grow to 100 million, and at that point, it's at the seams of what the operation can be. And we are going to have to think of other opportunities to grow for Virgin Atlantic".

Returning to Gatwick, which Virgin abandoned during the pandemic, might make sense in anticipation of its second runway reopening…

His statement can be interpreted in several ways.

The most likely is that Virgin Atlantic's future strategy will include a return to Gatwick which, by 2030, should eventually benefit from a 'Heathrow Runway 3-lite' conversion of a retired runway/current taxiway into a runway for narrowbody short haul take-offs, as highlighted in Gatwick Airport moves forward on its desire to bring northern runway into use, a CAPA - Centre for Aviation report from Jul-2023.

…and the airline could expand elsewhere in the UK

Virgin Atlantic also operates out of Manchester, where it has four routes currently, compared to 21 at Heathrow. So that could be expanded also, which would undoubtedly please the management there in the face of a consistent refusal by British Airways to operate international services there. A dual Gatwick-Manchester expansion could be on the cards for Virgin Atlantic, with possibly other UK airports, like fast-growing Edinburgh, being brought online.

As things stand, Heathrow was the world's fourth busiest airport in 2023, with 79.2 million passengers and up four places from 2022 in the rankings. It was also the second busiest international one, after Dubai International, which also has only two runways (although it will be replaced within a decade by Dubai World Central, which will have six), and the busiest in Europe.

Gatwick was the world's 48th busiest airport on 41 million passengers - down 13 places, and Europe's eighth busiest.

Heathrow and Gatwick have only three runways for 120mppa: London criminally short of runway capacity

Intriguingly, Heathrow and Gatwick have only three working runways between them for 120.2 million passengers or 40 million passengers each. The closest comparable calculations are for Atlanta (five runways for 104.7 million passengers at one airport, or 21 million each; and Beijing (92.3 million passengers on seven runways at two airports, or 13.2 million each).

If Stansted Airport is also taken into account - the UK's fourth busiest airport, and London's third (28 million passengers in 2023) - that ratio remains in the same ballpark, at 37 million passengers each.

Even allowing for the fact that there are three other commercial scheduled airports in the London region - City, Luton and Southend, each with only one runway - and that in the past couple of decades the emphasis on global hubs has swung away from Europe towards the Middle East and West Asia - the undeniable reality is that London is hopelessly, almost criminally, short of runway capacity.

And that fact is emphasised even more by the passenger growth rates observed in the first months of 2024, which were +8.2% at Heathrow (Jan-Apr) and +12.7% at Gatwick (Jan-Feb, the most recent figure available).

When Mr Weiss says "we are constrained at Heathrow", he is talking about a problem that has plagued the airport and the airlines that operate there for decades.

Although Heathrow only has four terminals now (2-5), T1 having been closed so T2 could be expanded, the problem is not with terminal space, but with runway capacity.

Heathrow's 2024 movements could be an all-time high

Heathrow's aircraft movements are literally capped by its capacity, the number of movements possible on its two runways, as well as by environmental regulations (480,000 per annum), which would have to be adjusted for it to grow.

The chart below details the number of annual movements between 2009 and 2024 (to date). Clearly there was a large reduction in 2020 and 2021 caused by the pandemic, as there was everywhere.

London Heathrow Airport annual traffic: aircraft movements/growth, 2009 to 2024 (Jan-Apr)

Note though, the unanimity in movements in all the other years before 2020.

There was no discernible increase throughout the period, and the year with the greatest number (just) was 2011 (476,200).

But note also that in 2023 movements were back up to 454,000, and that in the first four months of 2024 the growth rate was 7.5%. Should that rate of increase remain constant throughout the rest of 2024, that would mean over 488,000 movements this year, which could be an all-time record.

Smaller aircraft mean greater frequencies

One of the issues Heathrow faces, although some of what follows is conjecture (the picture is evolving, and not yet complete), is that widebodied aircraft are getting smaller on average.

The Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 are no longer being built. The former has been phased out by many airlines now and the type is (more often than not) operating as freighters, and the future is not exactly rosy for the A380, production of which has ceased. More redundancies will follow as the business continues to adopt its own variation on Orwell's 'Animal Farm' - "Two engines good; four engines bad."

And there are no new large aircraft on the planning board other than the 777-X, which will take some years to come fully into service.

On the other hand, single aisle aircraft are getting bigger; the Boeing 737-10 and Airbus A321 LR are the biggest version of those two single aisle twin jets ever made (the Boeing 757 is now out of production).

Then there is the question of airline passenger loads.

Long gone are the days when a full service carrier (which is the only type that existed) would aim for a 66% load factor on a small range of mainly high and inflexible fares. Driven by 'low cost' principles (and even though low cost accounts for only 2.2% of capacity at Heathrow), full service carriers increasingly aim for 90%, which means more passengers than previously, and that has to be taken into account.

Higher frequencies and more movements a likely outcome

Even so, and although the figures can be calculated and recalculated with numerous variables forever, it is fair to assume that the overall size and capacity of aircraft using a major global hub like Heathrow will not be growing in the immediate future and for the next few years, at least, it will probably continue to shrink.

That means greater frequencies and, hence, more movements. Replacing two heavily used A380 mid or long haul round trips means three 777 trips.

And that scenario is exacerbated by the very strong and consistent growth recorded at Heathrow since 2022, which in many cases has put passenger traffic back to, or better than, 2019 levels, and to 2018 levels (which for many airports, quite apart from Heathrow, were greater than in 2019).

Having favoured an additional runway at Heathrow in 2015, just five years later the Airports Commission chairman couldn't see its point...

Ironically, the Head of the Airports Commission, Sir Howard Davies, who now holds an entirely different position as head of a banking group, commented a few years ago during the pandemic to the effect that there is no justification now for a third runway at Heathrow.

The real irony here is that the commission was swayed in its judgment by projected increases in aircraft size.

The commission said: "The level of unconstrained demand forecast within the London system is greater still, indicating that by 2030 some passenger demand is likely to be choked off by constraints on capacity, even allowing for the impact of a carbon cap and projected increases in aircraft size and loadings".

In fact, aircraft size was mentioned only once, in chapter:paragraph 3:55, of a 344-page report.

If the commission was sitting now - it might reach a different conclusion.

Heathrow: looking again at how to create capacity

As for Heathrow Airport, its stance is unequivocal, which is that "the position remains the same on the third runway".

Heathrow says the project is currently paused and being reviewed ahead of the next steps, with UK government policy (enacted on a cross-party basis) continuing to support plans for the third runway.

In the meantime, and in tandem, Heathrow continues to look at how it can deliver growth in the shorter term. For example, efficient operations that serve fuller and larger aircraft will, it says, help it to grow passenger numbers while the longer term planning continues.

(Interestingly - Heathrow sees both higher loads and larger aircraft in its planning).

Heathrow sums up its position by saying,

"We are conducting an internal review of the work we have carried out previously and the different circumstances we find the aviation industry in. This will enable us to progress with appropriate recommendations to create capacity at Heathrow Airport. The Government's Airports National Policy Statement continues to provide policy support for our plans for a third runway and the related infrastructure required to support an expanded airport."

There are alternative ways of creating capacity, including technological advances which speed up passenger journeys, as pioneered at Dubai International, but that is only one part of the equation.

Otherwise, Heathrow's statement could be summed up as: 'It's business as usual, but we are not really sure where we are going'.

And that has been the story of airport construction across the UK for a very long time - the UK being a nation that has only one other airport of any consequence, apart from Heathrow, that boasts more than one runway.

Heathrow does not compare well with peer airports in the runway stakes

It is useful to look at how Heathrow compares in this respect with selected European peers and rivals of a similar size and scope, also some North American airports, and several in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific.

Heathrow Airport compared with selected European peer/rival airports



Number of runways

London Heathrow



Paris Charles de Gaulle













Republic of Türkiye


New York JFK



Chicago O'Hare






Toronto Pearson



Mexico City Juarez International



Sao Paulo Guarulhos



Dubai International *



Doha Hamad



Hong Kong

Hong Kong SAR


Singapore Changi



Tokyo Haneda









Average for all airports other than Heathrow


Social and environmental arguments are waiting to come back into play if the third runway project is resurrected

Other factors may come (back) into play, especially social and environmental ones.

There still remains a particularly vocal anti-runway expansion lobby, not only in the boroughs surrounding Heathrow, but elsewhere in the capital - they are merely sleeping. They would have emerged very rapidly in Essex too, had the then mayor of London's (ex-prime minister Boris Johnson) proposals for a new 'floating' airport well to the east of the capital been accepted as a bone fide one by the Airports Commission.

The lobby's attitude is governed partly by potential social upheaval (the destruction of villages and the enforced movement of populations), and they will take succour from the present government's abandonment of most of the HS2 high speed rail line in Sep-2023, which would have uprooted people along its length.

And, of course, there is the omnipresent threat from the environmental lobby - one that has multiplied since it first turned out against the Heathrow runway.

That manifests itself in different ways. As soon as it became clear that most airlines intended to use sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) as much as they could, and it was proven how much quieter modern jets would be, that lobby turned its vitriol on the presumed increase in cars and delivery vehicles that would result from a third runway and dragged that issue into the courts.

There is never a dull moment where air transport and the environment is concerned.

Other potential solutions lie waiting in the wings

And it is still possible that other 'solutions' could be found, many of which have already been proposed, including the extension of an existing runway and using it for both landings and take-offs. Indeed, a private consortium put forward a plan to build and operate a runway and a new terminal at the same time.

Or the reopening of the Gatwick North runway mentioned earlier, even though that is still six years away, could be advanced as at least a temporary 'solution' to the southeast England capacity conundrum.

Could other airports that pitched to the Airports Commission come back onto the radar? There were 50 different proposals put forward - the vast majority of them were deposited rapidly in the trash can by what turned out to be a Heathrow-focused commission, even though there were some sensible ideas in there.

Might other London airports such as Stansted and Luton, for example, be the location of an additional runway? Or could there be expansion at Birmingham, in the middle of England, and where the HS2 line will now terminate, or Manchester (which has already been expanded) for the north?

Did Johnson's 'Boris Island' plan have sufficient merit for it to resurface?

Might the Airports Commission even be recalled?

Could the Airports Commission even be reinstated, given that circumstances have changed greatly since its report was published, nine years ago?

Stranger things have happened.

And could anyone have imagined in their wildest dreams that such questions might even be asked now, almost a decade on?

A new government will be under pressure to get this resolved once and for all, and pronto

With a general election scheduled for 04-Jul-2024 (although there has been zero discussion of transport issues at the time of writing), a new government will be expected to get on with it and make some rapid, binding and irreversible decisions on this matter.

And for that reason alone, Virgin Atlantic might best be advised to keep its powder dry and await the outcome of that election and its aftermath before committing to any decisions on future bases.

That said, should the status quo persist - and there is every chance that it will - then one can perhaps understand Virgin Atlantic going back cap in hand to an airport, Gatwick, that it abandoned during the pandemic.

One that for the next six years at least, though, will have just one runway; the busiest in the world.

This article was written on 05-Jun-2024.

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