London City Airport looks to expand to accommodate post-Covid travel recovery

London City Airport has laid out plans for significant expansion – including allowing more weekend flights – as it becomes the UK’s newest facility to respond to the travel industry’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

The London Docklands airstrip has launched a 10-week consultation to increase the cap on the number of inbound and outbound passengers, aiming to increase the figure from the current 6.5m to 9m by 2031.

Any attempt to relax historic controls when flying on weekends or early mornings is likely to be met with vigorous opposition from local residents and environmental groups.

The airport wants to relax the current take-off and landing ban between 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays and 12:30 p.m. on Sundays; it should be allowed to operate on Saturdays between 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.

Management is also pushing to be allowed to operate 12 flights between 6.30am and 7am six days a week, instead of the current six flights, and to have more leeway to allow late arriving planes to land after 10pm rather than being diverted.

Nothing would change on the Sunday hours from 12:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

The airport is not trying to lift its current cap of 110,000 flights per year, which it didn’t even come close to exceeding before the pandemic.

Additional capacity would not require additional infrastructure after expanding the terminal building and taxiways, the airport said.

The city airport also offered 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 recovered quickly this year along with the easing of Covid-19 travel restrictions. The airport expects to fly 3 million passengers this year and return to pre-pandemic levels of 5 million a year as early as 2024.

“The strength of our recovery demonstrates the huge pent-up demand for travel and the need to plan responsibly for the future,” said Robert Sinclair, Chief Executive of London City.

British Airways and KLM, two of the airport’s largest airlines, backed the plans. But Hacan East, a group opposed to the airport’s expansion, predicted trouble among local communities.

“Since London City opened, residents have had a break from the noise between Saturday lunchtime and Sunday lunchtime. There will be anger that the only break now will be for a few hours on Sunday morning,” said group chairman John Stewart.

While many airports have put development plans on hold during the pandemic, none have been abandoned and other companies including London Gatwick have recently outlined plans to fuel expansion.

Heathrow Airport Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye told the Financial Times 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 start… to invest in future capacities”.

But along with significant opposition on the ground, these plans also face a major hurdle due to the focus on climate change.

Ministers last year included transport in the UK’s carbon budgets and net-zero targets, and the government’s climate change committee has said any airport expansion would need to be offset by capacity cuts elsewhere.

Environmental groups argue that expanding airports is inconsistent with Britain’s promise to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, despite industry hopes of using new technologies, including different fuels, to cut emissions.

In City’s case, once consultation was complete, all plans would first be submitted to the London Borough of Newham, the local authority, with the possibility of appeals to the Planning Inspectorate and ultimately to central government.