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London Gatwick has applied for planning permission to expand its annual passenger capacity by 60 per cent, becoming the latest UK airport to bet on a significant growth in flying in the coming decades despite climate change concerns.
The UK’s second-largest airport on Thursday submitted an application to bring its standby runway into regular use, part of a £2.2bn project that would enable it to handle up to 75mn passengers a year by the late 2030s, up from the record 46.5mn travellers who used the airport in 2019.
Under the plans, the back-up runway at the airport would move 12 metres to the north to put enough space between it and the existing main runway to allow both to operate at the same time in line with international safety standards.
Stewart Wingate, Gatwick’s chief executive, said the expansion plan was “both economically and environmentally robust”. He pointed to forecasts for a sharp rise in demand in the coming years, despite expectations that the airport would handle just 41mn passengers this year.
The expansion project is more modest than Gatwick’s earlier plans to build a new runway on land near the airport, which were scrapped when the government instead backed expanding London Heathrow, the UK’s biggest airport, in 2016.
Wingate said repurposing the back up runway for regular use was “in line” with the government’s policy on airport expansion, which calls for airports other than Heathrow to grow by making best use of their existing infrastructure.
Gatwick expects the final decision on planning application by the government to come by early 2025.
The industry and government argue that expansion is possible despite the UK’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 because the aviation industry has pledged to hit the same target date, mainly through the use of less polluting fuels.
Environmental groups and some scientists question whether that commitment is attainable. The Climate Change Committee, government’s independent panel of advisers, last week recommended that no airport expansions should proceed until a UK-wide framework was in place to assess and control the sector’s emissions.
The country’s biggest airports are nonetheless in the midst of an expansion drive. Taken together, the eight largest airports in the UK have plans to fly 387mn passengers annually, up from the 240mn who used the airports in 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit.
Among them, London Luton has applied to nearly double its annual capacity to 32mn passengers, while London Stansted has approval to expand to handle 43mn per year.
Heathrow airport paused its expansion drive during the pandemic, but has pledged to revisit the plans later this year.
Tim Norwood, chief planning officer at Gatwick, said the government needed to “balance” environmental concerns with the “social value and economic benefits” of development. “We do have some environmental impacts . . . we will try to mitigate them,” he added.
Gatwick said that, if approved, the expansion would create 3,000 jobs at the airport and inject £1bn into the local economy every year.