Foster and Partners to reveal revised Thames Hub airport plan

After last week’s discussion over airport expansion options at Heathrow and Gatwick, this week the focus returns to the Thames estuary as scheme proposers submit revised plans to Sir Howard Davies’ airport commission and argue to be included in his shortlist of contenders.

Foster and Partners - new hub layout

Although Davies resisted calls to shortlist an estuary scheme in his initial report last December he promised further investigation noting that “the notion of a once-in-a-century decision to build a new hub airport that would significantly reduce the impacts of aircraft flying into and out of London, especially for the many thousands of people affected by noise around Heathrow, is compelling”.  

Top of the current contenders is the Thames Hub scheme promoted by architect Foster and Partners working with CH2M Hill and others (Full details here). Transport for London and the office of London Mayor Boris Johnson are also firmly behind plans.

“There has never been a better time to move Heathrow. We have growth in the economy and huge capacity concerns at Heathrow. This is not intended to be a short term fix,” Huw Thomas, Foster and Partners

The Friday deadline for submissions will inform the commission’s detailed analysis of ideas to create a new hub airport in the Inner Thames Estuary. 

According to Fosters partner Huw Thomas the work carried out over the last five months has enable the plan to be refined, reinforced the case for moving the UK hub out of Heathrow and proved that environmentally, operationally and financially the plans stack up (see q and a below).

“We were asked a number of questions including could we legally build an airport in this location? he said,  referring to the Commission’s terms of reference which set out four key study questions. These focused on environmental issues, operation feasibility, socio economic impacts and transport links.

“We have had to look again at the impact of our proposals. The reality is that in life things change and we cope and we move on,” he said. “There has never been a better time to move Heathrow. We have growth in the economy and huge capacity concerns at Heathrow. This is not intended to be a short term fix.”

The new Thames Hub scheme will be revealed on Friday and while still in the same location to the north of the Isle of Grain, it is understood to include a revised airport layout. This will retain the four parallel runway configuration but is now is expected to feature a design with two central runways and two outer runways. Scalable terminal buildings would be located between the two pairs of runways with service facilities and freight handling at each end.

“We have changed the airport layout to reflect that fact that the last plan effectively wasn’t designed but simply have a version of the Cliffe Airport placed on top of the platform,” explains Thomas. “We have now done more work on the footprint and will be presenting a new airport design.”

If you look back even 15 years you would have laughed at any prediction. So should the vested interests of today be the things that will drive us forward to tomorrow? Huw Thomas, Foster and Partners.

Thomas also said that a great deal more work had been done to assess the transport connectivity of the new airport. This will now see more trains deliver passengers and freight to the airport using HS1, Crossrail and the classic rail network. As in the original scheme, freight cargo is a hugely important opportunity with rail and road links to the new DP World London Gateway Port.

“Our costs are being finalised right now but they are broadly in line with our previous estimates of £20bn for the platform [which includes runways, taxiways and terminal facilities] plus £4bn for the transport links needed,” said Thomas. Pointing out that the £80bn price tag discussed in the past by the Commission went way beyond the cost of delivering an airport. “That price would get you all that is needed to operate to 110M passenger movements a year.”

The scheme will also tackle other criticisms raised by the initial Commission review including the difficulty identified by the National Air Traffic Service over flight handling to the east to the UK, the presence of HMS Montgomery and its sunken explosive cargo and of course the proximity of the gas storage works on the Isle of Grain.

“In 20 years from now when the gas facility reaches the end of its life many things will be different,” explained Thomas. “. Given were we are with fracking and the storage and transport of gas it is surely more likely that a piece of prime real estate alongside a global hub airport would be more valuable with another use.


Foster and Partners partner Huw Thomas has masterminded the Thames Hub Estuary Airport plan over the last three years. He discusses the project with Infrastructure Intelligence Editor Antony Oliver.

Q: Building in this location is controversial socially and environmentally. Can it be done? 

A: We have had to prove that there is an overriding national benefit and public need and that there is no other comparable alternative. Then we had to look at the environment and habitat replacement and we see that yes, it is doable.

Q: Will airlines move? 

A :Well if you give them a good business case, yes they will. Operationally we have studied the impact of moving the hub and asked would the airlines move? The answer is yes they would in 15 to 20 years’ time. If you look back even 15 years you would have laughed at any prediction. So should the vested interests of today be the things that will drive us forward to tomorrow?

Q: This is such a big plan, is it politically deliverable?

A: I would say that Heathrow expansion is politically undeliverable. And Gatwick is simply protecting its business against Heathrow – the question there is would a second runway be even fundable? 

Q: London Mayor Boris Johnson is a big supporter. How important is that support to you? 

A: Boris has drowned out the noise from MPs under the flight path. As the mayor he has to look at the strategy for London. He has recognised that London’s future is global. But he is not behind a scheme but behind an idea.

Q: Does the UK really need the capacity that a four runway hub will provide? 

A: Europe is very well positioned as a hub for the world – it is a unique position that puts huge amounts of global GDP in striking distance for long and short haul flights. That is why Heathrow has been successful but the reality is that is just filled up before Frankfurt and Schiphol. But growth in demand for travel means that they will soon be where Heathrow is now in terms of capacity.

Q: How does the UK compared globally? 

A: We have got to understand where our peers are heading - Beijing, Doha and Istanbul are charging ahead, Mexico City is building the next generation of global hub. Last month we saw the opening of the new Doha Airport and the question it raises is around the need for 24 hour airports. The economy is growing. There is an understanding that we are now in global markets with global supply chains. We are an island and our ports must be open.


The figures

Heathrow today has 480,000 movement and 76M passengers/year. With a third runway it is planned to cope with 740,000 movements a year. Passenger numbers would therefore range from 94M passengers/year at 85% capacity and a 150 passenger/flight load factor to 136M passenger/year at 98% capacity and 188 passengers/flight.

Thames Hub capacity is being designed for between 1M and 1.2M movements a year. Passenger numbers would therefore range from 127M passengers/year at 85% capacity and a 150 pass/flight load factor to 221M pass/year assuming 1.2M movements at 98% capacity and a 188 passenger/flight load factor.

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