The pandemic-induced collapse in air travel has cast fresh doubts on the need for a third runway at Heathrow, according to the former head of a government review into airport expansion.
Sir Howard Davies recommended the expansion of the London hub as part of the Airports Commission report published six years ago.
The commission said in July 2015 that an additional runway would deliver jobs, make long-haul routes profitable and boost the economy.
But Sir Howard admitted that the pandemic now raised serious doubts over the £14 billion expansion.
Asked by LBC radio if a new runway was needed, he said: “Not at the moment, quite clearly. Heathrow would be delighted to fill the two runways it’s got just at the moment and it’s nowhere near it.”
The chairman of NatWest Group said the pandemic had dramatically changed people’s working patterns and boosted trust in videoconferencing technology, meaning far fewer people would now travel for business.
The government backed the plans in 2018 based on the commission’s recommendation, triggering a lengthy planning process.
The Court of Appeal ruled in February last year that the government’s support was unlawful because it failed to take account of climate change commitments. This was then overturned by the Supreme Court in December.
Heathrow itself has now admitted that the plans have been put on the backburner pending its recovery from the pandemic.
A new runway would aim to boost Heathrow’s capacity by 50%, allowing it to handle up to 280,000 extra flights a year. But the airport saw a 72.7% drop in passenger numbers last year, falling from 80.9 million in 2019 to 22.1 million.
Sir Howard insisted that if a new runway were needed in the southeast it would still be at Heathrow.
When asked if he was still in favour of the project, he said: “I would have to redo the numbers to see if the economics made sense.”
A Heathrow spokeswoman told The Times that “demand for aviation will recover from Covid and sufficient hub airport capacity to support a global Britain will be required”.