While all all eyes are on Heathrow this week, Shanghai PuDong International is about to gain a fifth runway; but five runway airports are generally hard to find

On Monday 25-Jun-2018 the United Kingdom Parliament is scheduled to debate, and decide on, once and for all, whether or not there should be a third runway at London Heathrow Airport. The government’s Cabinet Office has finally rubber stamped the decision but with the government in disarray on several fronts, and with a government minister resigning as this is written so he can vote against it, it is a true British soap opera. As the voiceover used to say at the start of British TV puppet drama, Stingray: “Anything can happen in the next half-hour!” Who knows what today will bring!


Summary: 

  • London Heathrow Airport should gain another runway in 10 years but even then there will be only five across London’s three main airports;
  • Meanwhile, Shanghai Pudong airport will gain a fifth runway alone this year, despite handling less traffic than many airports with less runway capacity;
  • Airports with five or more runways are actually very few and far between – there’s only one in Europe and no others in Asia, albeit several green field airports under construction will have five or more;
  • The United States of America (USA) is the main exception with six airports in the >/= 5 runway category.

Assuming the elected representatives do find some unity on the issue that means that in (conservatively) 10 years time there will be not only three runways at Europe’s busiest airport but a grand total of five working ones at the three main London airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted), which collectively handled just short of 150 million passengers in 2017.

At the same time, China’s Shanghai Pudong International Airport, which saw exactly 70 million passengers in the same year – less than half that total – will open a fifth runway of its own this year, although it will be the only airport in China to have that many, which should help it towards a 75% on-time departure targeted for 2019.

Putting aside the omnipresent myopia that exists in the UK where transport infrastructure is concerned, having five runways seems to be a reasonable aspiration for any airport that wishes to be considered a world-class gateway and/or hub. So which are the others that have five working ones already? They are actually few in number.

In Europe there is only Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which is still sufficiently capacity constrained and attempts have been made to open Lelystad Airport, in the same operating group, to commercial traffic to ease congestion, but that has now been put back until 2020. The other main hubs are well served however. Major airports in Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid and Rome each have four runways although two of them at Madrid were effectively redundant until fairly recently during the Spanish recession.

Elsewhere, the five main Nordic airport hubs (Stockholm Arlanda, Oslo Gardermoen, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Iceland’s Keflavik) tally 13 runways between them but none has more than three. Russia is not well-served by runways with Moscow’s two main airports, Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo both having two. Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, which will close, has three but its replacement, the New Istanbul Airport, will eventually have six.

Surprisingly there are few runways in the Middle East either, considering it is a critical transfer point. Dubai International famously has only two runways, maintenance of which can cause operational difficulties, though Dubai World Central should eventually have the magic five. Indeed Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz Airport has more runways than any of the ‘Middle East Big 3’ (it has three). So does Cairo International. But not five!

Moving into Asia there is a similar story. Major hubs such as Singapore Changi (three) and Hong Kong International (two) might be expected to have more though Hong Kong plans to add a contentious third one. The new Beijing Daxing Airport will have four, meaning seven in all serving the Chinese city as long as the ‘Capital’ airport continues to function.

Booming Bangkok (100 million passengers expected in 2018) has four runways between its two airports (two each) but a third will be added at Suvarnabhumi. Tokyo has six runways at its two airports, Haneda home to four of them.

Africa simply does not have the traffic to merit multiple runways at any airport though the intention is to have four runways at the new Addis Ababa airport. That city is rapidly identifying itself as the Dubai of Africa, at least in aviation terms.

Latin America has two mighty airports at Sao Paulo in Brazil and Mexico City. Brazil does not have multiple runway set-ups (and Sao Paulo’s smaller Congonhas airport is notoriously congested physically). The four airports in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have only eight runways in total between them. In Mexico, Benito Juárez International in the capital has just two as well. The new airport that is already under construction there, but which could be abandoned by a new government, should feature six runways in its final phase.

It is really only in North America that five runways or more is the ‘norm’. That might be because there are far more domestic flights on smaller jet or turboprop aircraft than there is anywhere else, their advanced hub role, and because public funding for runways as opposed to terminal financing has in the past been generous. That is not so much the case today.

Airports with more than five runways comprise Chicago O’Hare International (dating back to when it was the US’s premier hub) has eight; Dallas-Fort Worth (an American Airlines hub) has seven; Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County, Boston Logan and Denver International all have six; while Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental has five.

There are also a large number with four, including Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International, Charlotte Douglas, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, New York JFK, Washington Dulles, Las Vegas McCarran, Los Angeles, Orlando, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis- St Paul, Philadelphia and San Francisco. There are numerous general aviation airports in the US with multiple runways such as Northeast Florida Regional Airport at St Augustine (seven) but they are discounted here.

In Canada, only Toronto’s Pearson airport, the main hub for Air Canada and the largest airport in the country by far, has five runways although Canada’s other main gateway airports do have three or four each.

So there are actually fewer airports with five or more runways than one might expect. Only eight are identified here but there are several under construction which should exceed five.