Heathrow Waits on Court Clearance for Runway It No Longer Needs

London’s Heathrow airport is waiting for a ruling from the U.K. Supreme Court Wednesday that could give it permission to build a third runway that it may no longer need.

An appeals court ruled in February that the government failed to take full account of the Paris Climate Agreement when approving the airport’s expansion. Heathrow was allowed to appeal in May, but by then its growth outlook had diminished amid the collapse in travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s still the case as the Supreme Court prepares to decide whether to uphold the lower court’s ruling or overturn it. Borders are restricted, with the number of passengers passing through Europe’s busiest hub down 88% in November, and 72% year-to-date.

“Heathrow would like to get the approval in the bag, to be ready for when demand comes back in the future, but as things stand, it’s impossible to project when the extra capacity delivered by the third runway will be needed,” said John Strickland, of airline advisory firm JLS Consulting. “In the short to medium term, there’s plenty of unused capacity.”

A spokesman for Heathrow declined to comment ahead of the ruling.

In May, Heathrow Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye told lawmakers in May that the expansion could be delayed five years or more as result of the coronavirus outbreak. The third runway probably won’t be needed for 10 to 15 years.

The ruling will come after the airport operator spent years trying to win permission to expand to an annual capacity of 142 million passengers. Last year, it catered to about 81 million, an increase of just 1% due to a shortage of slots.

But the effects of the pandemic are hitting the airport, and the travel industry, hard. Holland-Kaye said last month that further job losses are likely on top of a 30% cut in management. This month, workers began a series of one-day strikes to protest wage cuts.

In late February, weeks before the national lockdown, the Court of Appeal said the government couldn’t ignore its commitments under the Paris Agreement, which requires the U.K. to reduce its investment in fossil fuel infrastructure. It didn’t rule out an expansion, but forced the government to review its airport policy in light of climate-change legislation.

While the pandemic has led to some reduction in emissions, environmentalists, who challenged the third runway in court, say the case against the airport expansion hasn’t changed.

“A third runway at Heathrow would put 700 more planes in the sky each day and lead to a massive increase in planet-wrecking emissions,” said Jenny Bates, a member of the public-interest group, Friends of the Earth. “This poses a serious risk to the U.K. meeting its legal duty to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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