In the never-ending, will-it-ever-happen saga that is London Heathrow’s third runway, new options have come forward that claim the project could be built for a third less than the £18 billion ($23 billion) price tag currently proposed by the airport. 

Arora Group, a UK hotel development and construction group that owns and operates multiple hotels and other facilities around London Heathrow, London Gatwick and London Stansted airports, has linked with US construction giant Bechtel and others to create the new bid.

The group has put forward several options for building the new runway, which it says would save around one-third of the planned costs. Heathrow is severely slot-constrained and operates at around 99% capacity on its existing two runways. Plans to build extra runway capacity in the crowded southeast of England have dragged on for more than four decades.

The UK government finally decided in 2016 to adopt a plan for a third Heathrow runway, but it is likely to face legal challenges on environmental grounds, and construction start is still several years away.

The Arora Group proposal is based on a third runway moved slightly east of its current proposed location, and to be shorter, at 3,200m rather than the planned 3,500m. 

The move eastwards, the group says, would remove the need for an expensive bridge arrangement over the M25 London Orbital motorway, which runs to the west of the airport boundary.

The proposal also envisages a new Terminal 6 and a satellite building to the west of the existing Terminal 5.

“The Arora Group’s proposals have been developed with input from primary airlines operating at the airport and they consider that this is an efficient, compact and cost-effective scheme that provides the potential capacity and functionality to meet their needs,” it said. “The cost of Heathrow expansion is currently excessive and would result in a level of passenger charge, which is unaffordable for passengers and airlines.” 

That the current proposal is considered excessively expensive is nothing new to airline bosses, especially International Airlines Group CEO Willie Walsh, who has been outspoken on what he calls the project’s “totally indefensible” costs. British Airways is an IAG airline and hubs from Heathrow. Walsh argues that only a very small percentage of the £18 billion would go to building the runway.

Whether the new proposals will be seriously considered, or help to dislodge the runway project from years of contentious stalemate has yet to be seen. A Heathrow spokesman stressed that its plan has “widespread cross party political, business and union support.”

The third Heathrow runway was chosen as the best of three potential solutions, but its high price tag has airlines concerned about potential fee increases.

Airlines, however, including the UK’s Virgin Atlantic and low-cost carrier easyJet, also recognize the importance of growing Heathrow’s capacity. 

For all its historic prominence as a global hub, Heathrow’s ranking is gradually slipping year by year. In 2015, it ranked 6th among world airports in terms of passengers processed and 10th in terms of aircraft movements. In 2016, Heathrow moved down to 7th in passengers and 11th in movements (see Top 50 Airports report, page 44). Los Angeles LAX, Amsterdam Schiphol and Shanghai all moved up. 

Sensible, cheaper options that still get the much-needed third runway built should be carefully reviewed. But the costs of more lengthy delays before ground is finally broken on the runway could be even higher.