Magoosh GRE

Aviation management

| February 8, 2017

How did Stansted get the go ahead to become London’s 3rd airport?

Pursuits for expansion of London airport capacity have been long drawn involving various Airport Commissions and political intrigues (FT, 2014). The quest for the Third London Airport particularly with regard to competing proposals for a new airport at Cublington and the expansion of Stansted is the subject of this section, which also discusses the key players who took part in the process..
Capacity constraints at Heathrow, particularly with the rapid growth in air traffic in the 1950s, led to overflows into Gatwick, UK’s second airport. Neither of these two locations are however ideal given the growth of the city. Built-up areas are not conducive for air safety and there is the additional challenge of noise pollution impacting residents (Helsey and Codd, 2012). It became apparent in the 1960s that there was need to meet considerable growth anticipated into the future. This gave rise to proposals for a new airport and expansion of existing capacity. Stansted, a former military airfield in Essex, was proposed as a third airport in 1963 and was thereafter endorsed by a Government White Paper in 1967 (HC Hansard, 1971; Stansted Airport, 2013).
A subsequent inconclusive public inquiry led to the setup of the Commission for the Third London Airport, popularly referred to as the Roskill Commission tasked with review of sites for a third airport (Abelson and Flowerdew, 1972; UKCAA, 2013). With its evaluation of the timing of need, the requirement for expansion of capacity, and after a careful study of a total of 80 proposed project sites, four sites were finally chosen, principal among them a new airport at Cublington in the Vale of Aylesbury. It was deemed to offer best access situated in the key London-Birmingham axis away from built-up areas and would cost less than most of the alternatives (Abelson and Flowerdew, 1972). This proposal however met with strong opposition from local people, politicians and middle-class voters making it politically untenable (FT, 2014).
An influential member of the Roskill Commission, Colin Buchanan, in dissent on grounds of environmental and planning concerns, proposed a new alternative at Maplin Sands, Foulness in the Thames Estuary. This opened the door to strong political opposition against Cublington with the latter proposal becoming the preferred option of the Conservative government of the day which thus disregarded Roskill’s proposal (FT, 2014; Helsey and Codd, 2012; Mishan, 1970). Maplin had interestingly been considered by the Roskill Commission and had been decisively rejected on the basis of cost (the most expensive option overall), distance and convenience to prospective passengers (the most remote) (FT, 2014; Mayor of London, 2013).
With all the political support and progress towards the Maplin proposal, it was not built (FT, 2014; Helsey and Codd, 2012). The cost of the constituent deep-harbour, rail links, motorways, new towns to accommodate workers, and surface route to the airport was an astronomical £825 million (estimated at £8,448 million today) (Helsey and Codd, 2012). To many, including the opposition party then – the Labour Party, this was regarded as unacceptable (FT, 2014).
With the coming to power of the Labour Party a change in complexion, the Maplin airport project was abandoned in July 1974 (FT, 2014). A reappraisal of passenger projections in the new regime indicated “over-optimism” in forecasts showing that there was adequate capacity until 1990 at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton, aided by regional airports (AOA, 2013; UKCAA, 2013). However, with increasing competition from abroad and passenger numbers once more rising, the need for expansion became apparent. British Airports Authority (BAA), owner of the Stansted Airport, submitted plans for its expansion and with significant lobbying by its Chairman Norman Payne and the enlisting of support from Margaret Thatcher, the Maplin scheme was abandoned in favour of a cheaper plan to enlarge Stansted (Mayor of London, 2013). This option had also been considered by Roskill and had not made the shortlist of key options (FT, 2014).
The expansion of Stansted was accomplished a decade after its proposition but was a predictable failure challenged by a lack of success in attracting and supporting long-haul operations by airlines (World Airline Directory, 2001; UKCAA, 2013). It was however to benefit from the emergence of low-cost carriers, principally Ryanair, which were drawn by attractive landing charges which offset consequent inconvenience to their passengers (UKCAA, 2013; Mayor of London, 2013; BBC, 2011).
Airport policy in the UK has been a case study of political short-termism with the location of an additional (3rd) airport for London in a dilemma. Heightened by uncertainy over demand and growth estimates and a general lack of bold political action, decisions are challenged by political considerations making inland airports unfeasible and economic considerations making coastal airports unfeasible. This has led to the postponement of requisite action with policy makers often prone to swaying given the intense and incessant lobbying and political pressures.


Abelson, P. and A., Flowerdew, 1972. Roskill’s successful recommendation.” In: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Vol. 135. No. 4, pp.467
Airports Operators Association, 2013. The Airport Operator, Autumn 2013.
BBC, 2011. Heathrow and Stansted runway plans scrapped by BAA, 24 May 2010. Viewed on 30/1/2014 from:
Financial Times, 2014. London’s new airport held to ransom by folly. December, 2013
House of Commons Hansard, 1971. Third London Airport (Roskill Commission Report). 4th March. Vol. 812. cc1912-2078. HC
Helsey, M., and F., Codd, 2012. Aviation: proposals for an airport in the Thames estuary, 1945-2012. House of Commons Library. Viewed from:
Mayor of London, 2013. Why London needs a new hub airport. Transport for London. Viewed from:
Mishan, E., 1970. What is wrong with Roskill? London: London School of Economics
Stansted Airport, 2013. Press Release. Viewed on 1st Feb 2014 from:
UKCAA, 2013. UK Airport Statistics – Aviation Intelligence. United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority.
World Airline Directory, 2001. Flight International. Stansted Airport, Stansted, Essex, 27 March – 2 April 2001. CM241SB, UK
Given the urgent need to find a solution to UK airport capacity why do you think the government wishes to delay the process?
Political intrigues and myriad arguments still mire the London airport expansion pursuit half a century later with the current Howard Davies Airports Commission set up in 2012 still wading in the long running controversy (FT, 2014). Continued political posturing, hedging and stonewalling still characterizes this pursuit for a viable solution given the readiness to oppose policies espoused by those of different complexions and political stand and complication of issues hindering bold decisions and action (FT, 2014; CAPA, 2013). With reference to previous government airport policies, this section evaluates the desire of government to postpone a decision on the final solution to meet need until after the 2015 general election.
In the Davies Commission’s view, the capacity challenge is yet to become critical and there is need for action as there is potential for it to be (The Independent, 2014; Airports Committee, 2013a). These findings contained in its December 2013 interim report (preceding a final report expected in 2015) are based on the acknowledgement of continued growth of air travel, mainly in the South East of England with the need for an extra runway by 2030 and another possibly by 2050. For the short and medium term, the Commission has made a raft of proposals to enhance efficiency of airline and ground operations (Airports Commission, 2013b). Ideally, the latter proposal is arguably most appropriate given that operational and design improvements have hitherto enabled the handling of more volumes than anticipated, extending current capacity and enabling full and efficient use of available resource (UKCAA, 2013; The Independent, 2014).
On the Commission’s shortlist of options for the short and medium term include a third runwayand lengthening of an existing runway at Heathrow, and a new runway at Gatwick. The proposal for a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary is side-lined citing uncertainties and challenges surrounding it with the Commission however promising to evaluate its feasibility and to arrive at a decision regarding its viability later in 2014 as well as longer term expansion options at Stansted and Birmingham (CAPA, 2013; Airport International, 2012).
The government however says that it will not make a final decision in this regard until after the 2015 general election pushing the responsibility to the next government (CAPA, 2013; FT, 2014). When the Coalition government came to power in 2010, it scrapped former Labour government’s plan for a third runway at Heathrow to which it had been strongly opposed instead favouring the creation of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary (Helsey and Codd, 2012). Given renewed focus on Heathrow, there seems to be a deliberate decision by government to avoid offending the electorate in its turnaround from its manifesto commitment, as well as to avoid political turbulence in the run up to the forthcoming elections (FT, 2014; CAPA, 2013). It is widely accepted that Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Davies Commission in a bid to postpone or to defuse controversy, maintaining a dishonest ambiguity until after the general election (FT, 2014).
Heathrow is a popular preference given the support it receives from the majority of politicians (except those with constituencies on the flight path); business and powerful representative lobby bodies; airlines; air alliances; remote UK regional airports benefiting from international connections; as well as domestic and international aviation representative bodies (CAPA, 2013; FT, 2014). Critics state that the inclusion of other airports is intended at making the proposals not to seem too Heathrow-centric and is aimed at political expediency (FT, 2014, CAPA, 2013). It would have been political dynamite for the Commission not to have made positive clamours with regard to runway capacity warding off accusations of ministers trying to kick the controversy ‘into the long grass’, a scenario which has bedevilled such pursuits for half a century (CAPA, 2013; The Independent, 2014).
From the 1967 Government White Paper permitting the expansion of Stansted, through subsequent inquiries and the Roskill Commission in the early 1970s, the quest for expanded capacity continues with arguments going back and forth around similar proposals and sites (FT, 2014; UKCAA, 2013). Expansion at Heathrow is an easy road given that it is relatively cheaper and has less challenges but for the environmental concerns of noise pollution and carbon emissions which cannot be ignored or wished away (Airports Committee, 2013a). The option for expansion at Stansted is impeded by previous capacity limitation by the 1985 White Paper, though it got reprieve in the 2003 ‘Future of Air Transport’ White Paper and an extension of passenger capacity limit by the courts (DOT, 2003). Yet, Stansted has historically been challenged with regard to its support of long-haul flights; preference by airlines; as well as environmental concerns (World Airline Directory, 2001; UKCAA, 2013). The Thames Estuary option despite being the most environmentally sound is challenged by economic considerations regarding not only the cost of building the airport but also the requisite surface links, and costs associated with imminent closure at Heathrow. There is also difficulty in the estimation of effects it will have on demand and airline operations (The Independent, 2014; Airports Commission, 2013b; Airport International, 2012).
This scenario highlights the present dilemma facing political players and government, which is what leads to their general uncertainty and a general lack of boldness in approach. Intense lobbying and political pressure has consequently led to the postponement of decisions and the backtracking by government from its pledge. The divide in opinion and arguments causing uncertainty hands politicians a license to continue to do nothing at all.
Airports Committee, 2013a. Emerging thinking: Aviation Capacity in the UK. 7th October. Viewed from:
Airports Commission, 2013b. Short and medium term options: proposals for making the best use of existing airport capacity. 7th August. Viewed from:
Airport International, 2012. Thames Estuary Airport Is Not A “Short Term” Solution. 4 July 2012.
CAPA, 2013. The Davies Commission’s Interim Report on UK airports: the big loser remains UK competitiveness. Centre for Aviation.
Department of Transport, 2003. The Future of Air Transport – White Paper and the Civil Aviation Bill. Viewed on 14/1/2014 from:
Financial Times, 2014. London’s new airport held to ransom by folly. December, 2013
Helsey and Codd, 2012. Aviation: proposals for an airport in the Thames estuary, 1945-2012
The Independent, 2014. Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission: Air travel could be transformed within a few years – with no more ‘stacking’. 17th December, 2013
UKCAA, 2013. UK Airport Statistics – Aviation Intelligence. United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority.

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