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Over the past 30 years, Weston Williamson has worked on some of the largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects in the UK and abroad. Their work on the Jubilee Line, on Crossrail and High Speed 2 has helped inform their ideas for how future airport capacity could be met to help growth and redistribute wealth throughout the United Kingdom. This essay by Pamela Buxton, freelance architecture and design journalist, was written following a series of conversations with WestonWilliamson+Partners. It is one in a series marking the 30th anniversary of the practice in 2015.


1. An image taken from a 24 hour map of UK airspace captured around noon on an average day.


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ack in the 1960s, the Airports Commission was set up to find a way of increasing capacity in the South East of England. Its recommendations for a new airport at Cublington in Buckinghamshire were ignored, and an alternative proposal for the Thames Estuary was chosen instead, although this was also ditched. Nearly half a century later, here we are again grappling with the same planning conundrum of how to create more runway capacity in the South East of England. This time, the Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, has shortlisted three scenarios—one for the expansion of Gatwick and two for Heathrow—and is due to make a choice by summer 2015. The Commission also identified Stansted as a plausible option for additional runway capacity in a few decades’ time. The Boris Johnson-backed idea of locating a new airport on the Thames Estuary was once a contender for the shortlist. After further consideration, it has now been rejected by the Commission but could be revived. Will the outcome of the Commission be any more decisive than previous attempts to find a solution to the eternal airport expansion problem? One of the few things that most debating this issue can agree on is that London’s airports are fast running out of capacity. Heathrow is full already, Gatwick will be too by 2020 and by 2030, London airports as a whole will have reached 96 per cent capacity, according to the Commission’s interim report. Stansted is on course to reach full capacity in 2041.

Analysing the problem Doing nothing to increase provision is therefore not an option, since, according to the Commission, it would cost the wider economy an estimated £30–45 billion. Heathrow Airport goes even further, estimating that every month without further capacity costs the British economy £1.25 billion through lost trade. Whatever the figure, something clearly has to be done. The question is what and where? Each time airport expansion has come up for debate, the stumbling block has been the sheer complexity of the issue, which encompasses everything from airport type to bird habitats, as well as noise, pollution, rail, road and port infrastructure, economic regeneration, and the impact on airport businesses.


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2. WW+P analysed existing air traffic patterns. Heathrow is the only airport with significant hub activity. Figures show that most passengers generally use the airport closest to them, but appreciate choice and variety. 3. It could be argued that a government with a sustainability agenda should be doing more to discourage air travel, but the feeling is that people will continue to travel more and if the UK does not keep up, airports overseas will provide for them.


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The implications of any one option are huge. A Thames Estuary solution, for example, would entail the closure of Heathrow and bring huge change for airport operators and carriers, not to mention airport employees and supplier businesses. Politically, runway expansion is hugely sensitive, with the coalition government having ruled out expanding Heathrow as recently as 2010. It’s no wonder that an interim solution, that fudges rather than solves the runway issue altogether, seems the most likely outcome. Even if another runway were built at either Gatwick or Heathrow, further provision would be needed within just a few decades. One of the key issues the Commission has been considering is whether priority should be given to creating a ‘hub’-style super-airport capable of handling more connections to other destinations, as well as passengers with London as their destination. Those supporting a multi-runway hub concept argue that this is essential to stop London losing out in the global air market to rivals such as Schiphol, Dubai and Istanbul. To them, a more incremental approach of adding just another runway would be merely akin to sticking a plaster over a deep wound. With all inner and outer Thames Estuary proposals seemingly ruled out, as well as a proposal for a hub at Stansted, the only hub option being seriously considered is an expanded Heathrow. The counter-argument is that an incremental approach of expanding existing facilities is more cost-effective and deliverable than a largescale expansion or an entirely new airport. This would spread the extra capacity and avoid the risks that could accompany an ‘all eggs in one basket’ scenario of one dominant airport. Furthermore, a mega-airport hub is not essential for the capital, which will always—unlike some international hubs—be a hugely attractive destination in itself, with or without a four-runway airport. Many variations of both the hub and incremental approaches were among the 52 submissions put forward to the Airports Commission in 2013. In the absence of any clear national planning framework on the matter, this body has had the unenviable task of comparing many different, and often compelling, solutions without the benefit of a clear strategic vision to judge them against.


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4. Plans for London’s expansion actually include five areas, but it is the proposals to the east that have dominated the debate so far.


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Many of the submissions to the Airports Commission have been from air industry parties with vested interests in the outcome. However, several architects, including WestonWilliamson+Partners, Foster + Partners, and Farrells and Grimshaw, have also got involved in the debate, bringing independently researched proposals for new runway provision at various South-East locations.

Utilising existing infrastructure Weston Williamson believe that architects are well placed for influencing the planning and infrastructure debate on decisions of regional and national importance, even though, for some decades, they appeared to lose their voice in such matters. Weston Williamson’s involvement in High Speed 2 (HS2) at Old Oak Common, Manchester, Crewe and Birmingham has also provided a regional perspective. “There is a lot of talk amongst politicians at present about a possible HS3 linking Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull,” says Williamson, “but there has been no mention of airport expansion in relation to these improved rail links, and surely that needs to be part of the debate. There seems to be an agreement emerging that London does not need a hub airport to attract passengers, so perhaps a northern hub could create fantastic opportunities for the UK economy.” Architects have certainly influenced the airport debate. Foster + Partners’ proposal, for example, is the most high profile of several Thames Estuary options. It proposes a 20km2, four-runway airport, capable of 24-hour operation because its Isle of Grain location removes the problem of noise pollution. Its proponents argue that it would be strategically located to stimulate growth in the east of London along the Thames Gateway, creating 100,000 new jobs, as well as delivering an accompanying orbital rail system and a new flood barrier. Others say an Estuary airport would be in the wrong place for the rest of the country and—by far the most expensive and ambitious proposal—could turn into a very costly “white elephant”. As yet, despite such precedents as the UK-initiated Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong, there doesn’t seem to be the will for such a grand project in the UK that would provide vast extra capacity and tackle so many other infrastructure issues at the same time. Perhaps the huge scope of the proposal is just too daunting to seriously contemplate. Certainly, the Commission has serious doubts about its operation and delivery, as well as its cost, and prefers to focus on options that retain a competitive airport market by avoiding the closure of Heathrow.



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5. WW+P proposals for a new hub airport have four parallel runways with two terminals and five satellites between them. To enable independent operations, the runways need to be 1km apart.


Weston Williamson’s own involvement in the airport debate arose from its work on major transport initiatives such as Crossrail 1 and 2, and the Old Oak Common interchange on the HS2 rail link. The practice began to consider ways of linking up new airport provision with these rail links, as well as with potential future new town developments. This research led to the practice’s independent proposal for a hub with up to four new runways at Luton Airport. Unlike the Foster Estuary’s allor-nothing proposal, the plan has the advantage of being developed incrementally according to need. Weston Williamson carried out its own research and decided to look at where the infrastructure currently is and will be in the future as a key factor to determine the best value location for extra runway provision. One option considered was an expanded Birmingham Airport, which will only be 45 minutes from London on HS2. However, the best answer, the practice felt, was a phased expansion at Luton, which is right in the middle of the national population map, with good proximity to manufactured goods, disposable income and established road and rail transport systems. In Weston Williamson’s proposal, the Luton Hub would link directly to Thameslink and possibly to Crossrail 2, and would also link to both the east coast and west coast mainlines with new light rail spurs to the terminal in under 10 minutes.

A solution for the whole of the UK Crucially, this option would expose drastically fewer people to noise pollution and congestion than either the Heathrow or Gatwick expansion options, and would, the practice feels, be a stimulus not just for economic development in London and the South East, but also for the whole of the UK. There’s a long way to go before anyone finalises what the eventual new airport will be like in terms of passenger experience, but in Weston Williamson’s vision for Luton, the terminal would be a world away from the typically characterless airport environments, and would instead include natural ventilation, indooroutdoor spaces, and leisure facilities.


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6. WW+P proposals utilise existing infrastructure investments. The expanded Luton Airport would be ten minutes from the improved West Coast mainline and seven minutes from the East Coast mainline linked by a light rail system. Crossrail 1 and 2 could serve Heathrow and Luton. Thameslink would run directly into a new Luton West Terminal.


7. At the heart of the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, there is a small rainforest around which the gates are configured. Bringing planting and trees into the airports would help create a more relaxing and interesting environment.


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8. WW+P’s designs for the Miami Seaplane Terminal evoke the glamour and excitement of flight that are currently absent from many modern airports.


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9. An expanded Luton Airport would sit between the M1 and West Coast mainline in the foreground and the A1 and East Coast mainline beyond. A light rail shuttle would run through a tunnel between the two terminals and five satellites. The Luton Hub could be built in stages over 50 years if projected capacity requirements continue. It would work in conjunction and competition with Heathrow and Gatwick.


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10. WW+P’s proposed Air Baltic Terminal in Riga is simple and well crafted. Travelling passengers need calmness and clarity, rather than elaborate structural gymnastics. 11. Diagram to show the number of people (thousands) exposed to noise exceeding 55dB.

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According to Weston Williamson, the Luton concept would be a much more flexible and pragmatic solution than an Estuary location, which would cost much more and cause a lot of disruption to business in the Heathrow corridor. Luton Airport’s owners, however, while welcoming the idea of another runway, currently have no appetite for a four-runway hub and the political debate that it would entail. Nonetheless, neither this response, nor the complexity and lengthy timescales of such projects, have put the practice off airports and transport infrastructure work. Weston Williamson has submitted designs for a new low-cost airport terminal in Riga. It is also actively seeking involvement in airports in Africa and elsewhere, in addition to its UK infrastructure work. With Luton and the Estuary out of the picture (for now at least), the two shortlisted options for expanding Heathrow would bolster the airport’s role as the UK hub airport. Heathrow Airport itself argues that a new runway would create 120,000 new jobs and deliver £100 billion of economic benefit for Britain as a whole. The airport suggests that there should only be one new runway in the South East—naturally at Heathrow so that it can maintain its hub status and successfully compete with international rivals for air traffic. This new runway is proposed to the northwest of the existing airport and, according to the airport, would operate 24 hours a day and handle 110 million, rising to 150 million, passengers per year. In addition to the increased capacity, advocates claim it will offer periods of noise respite and affect 15 per cent fewer households than flights currently do, as a result of steeper landing approaches, quieter aircraft, and the more westerly location of the runway. The airport says the new 3,500m-long runway could be built in six years and be operational by 2026 at an estimated cost of £17 billion. The other Heathrow option on the shortlist is the Heathrow Hub, which would expand and divide the airport’s two runways to effectively create four, thus doubling capacity. The first phase could be completed in just five years, and, its team says, offers the most sensible, safe and cost-effective option. Extending existing runway provision would be less disruptive than building on a new location, it is argued, with the extra runway length allowing space for early-morning flights to land on the parts that lie over two miles further west. Nonetheless, there is still the need to either tunnel, bridge or divert the M25 to accommodate the longer runways. The new hub would connect to existing mainline Great Western Rail services, as well as HS2 and Crossrail services to the north.


12+13. The people movement at stations such as WW+P’s Crossrail Paddington is as complex as many international airports, and the stations often serve similar numbers at peak periods.


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14. Heathrow transfer passengers on the route (%).


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These two Heathrow options are joined on the shortlist by a proposal by Gatwick Airport for a new 3,000m-long runway to the south of its existing runway. Farrells has been working independently on strategies to expand aviation provision in the South East of England for some years, and is advising Gatwick on its expansion plans. The practice sees another Gatwick runway and associated surface transport improvements as the first stage in an incremental, constellation-hub approach to form a “super-aerotropolis”. A second runway could follow, when needed, at Stansted. This would avoid creating a single dominant airport at Heathrow and so maintain genuine competition between the different locations. Farrells also believes it to be a more sensible and achievable approach with the prospect of changes in plane types, airlines and travel patterns that make future capacity requirements hard to predict. According to the practice, this approach has political support in the region and would entail the least noise disturbance and environmental impact. Farrells has drawn up three options for the new runway location to the south of the airport, offering different capacities of up to 87 million passengers by 2050. If chosen, the new Gatwick runway could be added after 2019, when a legal agreement not to expand the airport expires. It could be delivered by 2025 at a cost of £5–9 billion, but could deliver £90 billion in economic benefit to the UK, in addition to around 120,000 new jobs, according to Gatwick.

What happens next Although the Estuary is, at the moment, just too hot to handle, London mayor Boris Johnson predicts that expansion of either Heathrow or Gatwick will prove too problematic and that a future government will return to the Estuary concept. According to Weston Williamson, the big issue is that: “If the UK needs an efficient four-runway hub airport, you need to find a huge site, and that is going to affect a lot of people wherever it is. A site of around 5km by 3km is minimum. Many people agree that the capacity can be best served by an increased expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and elsewhere, but this rules out the economic benefits of a hub airport. There are many vested interests at play, particularly since the British Airport Authority was privatised and the airports now all compete.”

It is important to analyse current hub activity to inform decisions about future capacity. This diagram shows average percentages of passengers on each flight currently using Heathrow. For example, 78 per cent of passengers from Hyderabad and 80 per cent from Manchester don’t leave the airport, but change at Heathrow for elsewhere. This makes it economical to operate the route for the remaining minority.



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15. Some high-speed stations in China, such as those in Wuhan and Xiamen, are the size of many international airport terminals. Airport design is a natural progression for WW+P.


16. We need a proper review looking at the UK’s capacity as a whole, how any new or expanded airports would fit with existing infrastructure, and the economic benefits throughout the country.


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“We advocated the expansion of Luton Airport as a possible solution to the capacity in the south and several financial backers are very positive about the idea if the political issues can be sorted. Similarly, our proposals for a northern hub are attracting attention from businesses. We have no ties, so are able to stand back and consider issues objectively.” There’s not long to wait for the Commission’s eventual recommendation, expected no later than summer 2015. However, with the election looming and votes in West London at stake, its recommendation is unlikely to be the last word, with the distinct chance that an incoming government may prompt a total rethink. If the decision to build just one new runway is the final outcome of several years of reports, consultations and assessments, it won’t be long before the need for more capacity arises, and the airport runway debate will begin all over again.


Picture Credits: 1. © 1990-2015 422 South Limited 2. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 3. © Shutterstock Images 4. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 5. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 6. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 7. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 8. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 9. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 10. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 11. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 12. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 13. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 14. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 15. © WestonWilliamson+Partners 16. © WestonWilliamson+Partners