Let’s Do This: The U.K. says yes to a third runway for Heathrow. What does it mean for the world’s airlines?

The U.K. says yes to a third runway for Heathrow. What does it mean for the world’s airlines? For a lengthy period of history, sea power made the U.K. richer and more powerful than any other country in the world. Today, it’s air power— commercial air power—that’s central to its economy. But without new runway capacity in London, still the world’s busiest airline market with 155m annual passengers spread across six airports, the U.K.’s dominance of the skies will wane just like its dominance of the sea.

With this in mind, the U.K. government last week announced its support for a long-discussed third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, currently the world’s sixth busiest with 75m passengers last year. It was the world’s second busiest as recently as 2009, before cities like Chicago, Dubai, Beijing and Tokyo achieved much faster rates of growth by expanding their infrastructure. The U.K.’s outsized influence in global aviation, in other words, is already waning, exemplified by the wider range of overseas flight options to China, for example, from rival European hubs like Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

Why the decision now, after years of delays and denials? For one, the newly installed Theresa May-led government wants to send a message that Britain remains open for business in the wake of June’s vote to leave the European Union. It also sees infrastructure investment as a way to create good jobs at a time of slow global economic growth. The U.K.’s exporters will benefit from expanded air links, officials argue. Passengers will benefit from more competition and lower fares. Secondary cities throughout the U.K.—Liverpool, Newquay and Humberside, for example—will benefit from more nonstop flights to the capital. A proposed ban on flights during late-night hours will help control noise, which in any case will be mitigated by the quieter aircraft airlines are now flying. And the government will provide generous compensation for residents forced to sell their homes to make way for the new runway and for those affected by whatever increase in noise there might be. It’s these affected residents and their political representatives that have long stood as the key opposition force against Heathrow expansion.

Some airlines like Norwegian wished the government had chosen to add a runway at London’s Gatwick Airport instead. Ryanair, for its part, accepts the need for a new runway at Heathrow but insists Gatwick and Stansted…

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