Can Heathrow Be Replaced By A Man Made Island Airport?

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27/10/2008 – Can Heathrow Be Replaced By A Man Made Island Airport?

For those of you who have read Flying With Fish regularly since its inception, you may be aware of my affinity for London Heathrow Airport (LHR). I have slept at Heathrow more than any other airport, due to a combination of missed connections, weather cancellations and my being to cheap to pay for a hotel room.

I think if I sleep in LHR’s Terminal 3 one more night the BAA might have a plaque with my name on it made up and placed on a bench near the Air Canada check-in counter.

Today’s edition of The Independent reports that the Mayor of London Boris Johnson is reviving the idea of constructing an airport on a man made island off the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary. Under Johnson’s concept the airport would be constructed in waters 10-to-13 feet deep and be expanded to include six runways.

The cost of replacing the 62-year-old Heathrow, which is a major established international hub? An estimated £40bil (US$61,854,790,607)

Should the British Government go ahead and choose to move London Heathrow to the Thames Estuary there will be some significant hurdles. Having read, and reread, this story a few times today I came up with a few things that the planning commission will need to keep in mind off the top of my head.

First and most importantly they need to remember the problems associated with the construction of, and sinking of, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (KIX), which opened in 1994. While KIX was built on reclaimed land in much deeper water, engineers misjudged the actual rate of settling/sinking of the island. The man made island KIX is built on has already settled far below the estimated 20 year sinking estimate. The island KIX is on is now at 15 feet above sea level, and continues to sink at 4cm per year, or 33 feet over 20 a year span (keep in mind the island is now only feet above sea level).

As the island sinks, it is drops at a rate faster than that of the 5,577 foot long terminal. This disparity in sinking rates requires that the terminal be jacked up off the foundation. The jacking of the terminal allows the terminal to stay level and not crack and separate in specific areas.

Given the traffic Heathrow receives compared to KIX, the island would need to be much larger than the one for KIX. Heathrow moves an average of 67.5million passengers annually, while KIX only moves an average of 17.5 million passengers per year. For comparison, Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) ‘only’ moves approximately 44 million passenger a year, still 23.5 million less than Heathrow (London Standsted alone moves an average of 23.7 million passengers per year)

The sheer size of an island to be created, placed over bedrock, and constructed would be a massive undertaking. This undertaking needs to factor in that five international airports serve London. While the idea of phasing out Heathrow may seem logical, the airport cannot easily be replaced. The passenger traffic can be moved, in part, to another London area airport.

While London Gatwick (LGW) is semi-convenient to London, the airport is restricted to a single runway. While there have been studies to add a second runway to Gatwick, the additional runway cannot be constructed prior to 2019.

Despite LGW being confined to a single runway for both departures and arrival, the airport moves an average of 263,363 aircraft annually, or 721.5 aircraft daily, or 30 aircraft per hour. For a single runway airport LGW does moves an incredible amount of traffic, but the airport is at capacity and cannot be used to reduce Heathrow’s traffic.

Like Gatwick, London Stansted (STN) is a single runway airport, but it has room for two additional runways. The plans are currently being reviewed, despite some opposition to expand Stansted’s boundary. This expansion would allow fro runway #2 (and potentially #3). Stansted could have a 2nd runway as early as 2011.

I have long since voice my opinion that STN could be an alternative use for Heathrow airport. Although STN could never replace LHR or handle the traffic LHR moves. With a second runway Stansted could potentially handle up to 10mil more passengers than it handles now, reducing some traffic from Heathrow. This reduction in traffic can allow more slots to be opened at LHR.

Heathrow has aggressively been campaigning for a 3rth runway that would be significantly shorter than the two current runways. This third runway could ease congestion with the constant stream of regional narrow body flights and regional traffic. This new third runway Heathrow would be able to accommodate 720,000 movements annually or 1,972 flights per day.

So could London Heathrow be moved to an Island that could offer six runways? I am sure it could be done. The Egyptians constructed the Pyramids and a blind Chinese monk named Haitong started construction of the world largest Buddha in Leshan, China, in 713AD. With these massive accomplishments in mind, I am sure London could relocate Heathrow to a man made island.

Happy Flying!

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