Client interview: Heathrow Airport

Planning for success: Heathrow Airport tackles its expansion challenge

The construction of a new third runway at Heathrow Airport in the UK is comparable to Crossrail in scope, complexity and cost – albeit in a much tighter space. Phil Wilbraham discusses the major logistical, infrastructure and skills challenges ahead.


There has been a buzz at Heathrow Airport, ever since the UK Government gave the airport its backing for a third runway in October 2016.

After decades of debate and political wrangling, the airport operator is now shifting its energies from campaigning to planning.

“It’s very exciting, because it’s still very new,” says expansion programme director Phil Wilbraham. “Before the Government’s decision last October, we had done very little design or architecture. But in the last three months, the team has grown substantially.”

The Department of Transport’s draft National Policy Statement on Heathrow is currently out for consultation. It will be debated and voted on by Parliament later this year. A second consultation on the preferred masterplan should take place in 2018. All being well, Heathrow will be applying for planning permission in mid-2019 and construction could begin in 2020, with the first flights taking off from the new runway in 2025.

In 2016, 75.6 million passengers passed through Heathrow Airport. The operator anticipates that the new runway could ultimately help capacity to grow to 135 million passengers a year.”

Considering infrastructure requirements

There are going to be some major infrastructure building and logistical challenges on the biggest project that Heathrow has seen in decades. The £4.5bn Terminal 5 project, which opened in 2008, was considered to be one of the UK’s megaprojects at the time and included the diversion of two rivers and the construction of underground rail infrastructure – the Piccadilly Line and Heathrow Express extension.

  • 370,000 Tonnes of steel required
    for Heathrow Airport expansion
  • 135m Passenger capacity expected each year

Before work can start on the runway, hectares of critical infrastructure need to be shifted out of its path, including a large energy from waste plant, a Home Office detention centre, the head office of British Airways as well as 700 homes. Four rivers may have to be diverted. Local artery roads, including the A4 and the A3044 must be rerouted.

Tackling the logistics challenge

Then there are the logistical challenges of running a programme of this magnitude within the world’s busiest two-runway airport. Wilbraham understands this better than most. A chartered civil engineer, he has worked at Heathrow for 20 years, 14 of them with the client. Former roles have included construction director on the Terminal 5 project as well as programme director on Terminal 2. Before heading up the expansion team, he was development director, responsible for the airport’s capital spend decisions.

Heathrow has long been a pioneer of offsite and modular construction, but Wilbraham believes that the third runway project could develop the concept even further.

The operator is planning to create four manufacturing and logistics hubs around the country.

“Expanding Heathrow is much more than building new infrastructure. It is about connecting the whole of the UK to growth and delivering benefits estimated at £211bn and up to 180,000 jobs across the UK.”

He adds that part of the expansion team’s work this year is determining the most suitable locations for the hubs. It is currently scoping out parts of the country with strong Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) manufacturing ecosystems.

“We want to create something that is sustainable for the future,” he adds. “It would be great if these hubs were still there in 20 years’ time, serving not only the needs of Heathrow but also of other clients.”

In its quest to build faster, safer and more efficient than ever before, the Heathrow expansion team is casting its net wide for best practice and innovation.

“We’re gathering information from airports around the world. There are many opportunities. We need to select the right ones and develop them,” Wilbraham says. He adds that one area under consideration is the increased use of precast concrete.

“There is a view that in-situ poured concrete is easier to do. But in America airports are beginning to use precast concrete for taxiways. We currently have a team visiting Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare airports where this type of work is being developed.”

  • 474,000 Flight movements (2015)
  • 740,000 Flight movement capacity with expansion

The right innovation and skills

He also anticipates that new technology could radically transform work on site.

“Autonomous vehicles and robots may be a little too soon for our project, but I’m not ruling them out,” he says. “Our Terminal 3 already uses two robots in its baggage handling systems.”

Heathrow is a member of I3P – the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform. This initiative was started by Crossrail, and is now being led by the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

“Our approach to innovation is likely to become more structured around initiatives such as I3P, we also hope to be incorporating lots of learning from programmes such as HS2 or Hinkley Point C.”

Heathrow has long been a pioneer of offsite and modular construction. The operator is planning to create four manufacturing and logistics hubs around the country.

Wilbraham acknowledges that the amount of sharing and collaboration currently going on between major clients is unprecedented.

“We’re coming together not only to get consistency on things like innovation, but also to be consistent in how we are approaching the supply chain, so that we are not asking for different things. We want to learn from each other,” he adds.

The UK’s chronic skills shortage is another challenge that requires industry-wide collaboration. The crisis is not only affecting the trades, but increasingly being felt in disciplines such as design, engineering and surveying.


  • 10,000 Apprenticeship places over the next 15 years
  • 41,000 Jobs created through the
    Heathrow expansion programme

Heathrow has set up a skills task force, chaired by Lord Blunkett, and has announced up to 10,000 apprenticeship places, for both the operation and construction of the airport, over the next 15 years.

“There is no doubt that the skills shortage is national issue, which we are trying to address with other clients. But he is relishing the personal challenge that the expansion project is bringing.

“This is a once in a generation project that has huge national significance. My job is to hold this programme together, remain optimistic and leave a legacy that is really exciting.”

Turner & Townsend is one of the four client partners on Heathrow’s expansion programme.

Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform (i3P)

This pioneering initiative was launched in October 2016 to energise innovation within the UK’s infrastructure industry. It aims to provide a platform to drive collaboration and increased value across the infrastructure industry, bringing together 21 major infrastructure clients and their supply chains.

For further information contact:

Robert Stacey

t: +44 (0)20 7544 4000