London City airport looks to expand to meet post-Covid recovery in travel

London City airport has set out plans for significant expansion — including allowing more weekend flights — as it becomes the latest UK facility to react to the travel industry’s recovery after the pandemic.

The London Docklands airstrip has launched a 10-week consultation on increasing the cap on how many passengers can fly in and out, as it seeks to lift the number from the current 6.5mn to 9mn by 2031.

Any attempt to ease historic controls on flying over the weekend or in the early morning is likely to be vigorously opposed by local residents and environmental groups.

The airport wants the current prohibition on take-offs and landings between 12.30pm on a Saturday and 12.30pm on a Sunday to be relaxed; it wants to be allowed to operate between 6.30am and 10pm on a Saturday.

The management is also pushing to be allowed to operate 12 flights between 6.30am and 7am six days a week, up from the current six flights, and for more leeway to allow late-arriving aircraft to land after 10pm rather than entertain.

There would be no change to its Sunday hours of 12.30pm to 10pm.

The airport is not seeking to lift its current cap of 110,000 flights a year, which it did not come close to exceeding even pre-pandemic.

Additional capacity would not need extra infrastructure, following upgrades to the terminal building and taxiways, the airport said.

City airport also offered local residents a “commitment” that only new and comparatively quiet aircraft would be allowed to operate during the extended operating hours.

The expansion plans come as passenger numbers have rapidly bounced back this year along with the easing of Covid-19 travel restrictions. The airport expects 3mn passengers to fly this year, and to see a return to pre-pandemic levels of 5mn a year as soon as 2024.

“The strength of our rebound demonstrates the huge pent-up demand for travel and the need to plan responsibly for the future,” said Robert Sinclair, London City’s chief executive.

While many airports put development plans on hold during the pandemic, none were abandoned and other businesses including London Gatwick have recently outlined plans to push ahead with expansion.

Heathrow airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye told the FT earlier this year that his airport’s plans to build a third runway were “back on the table” and that it was the “right time to be investing in future capacity”.

Heathrow is entitled to apply for planning permission for a third runway after the Supreme Court in 2020 ruled the project could proceed.

But along with significant local opposition, these plans also face a major hurdle from a sharpening focus on climate change.

Ministers last year included transport in the UK’s carbon budgets and net zero targets, and the government’s own Climate Change Committee has said any airport expansion would have to be balanced by capacity cuts elsewhere.

Environmental groups argue enlarging airports is incompatible with the UK’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, regardless of industry hopes to use new technologies, including different fuels, to drive down emissions.

In City’s case, once the consultation closes any plans would initially be presented to the London borough of Newham, the local authority, with appeals to the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately central government possible.

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