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Heathrow's third runway: 4 lessons from other airport jobs

The government has recently announced a decision “in principle” to approve a third runway at Heathrow Airport subject to a one-year review period.

Making a decision over this massive project has been postponed by successive administrations for reasons of political expediency and party management.

“The experience of Chek Lap Kok is an example of what can be achieved when there is a political imperative to complete the project on time”

The decision is long overdue and is to be welcomed, as the need for additional capacity has been recognised for a considerable time by most independent observers. This is only the beginning of a long process of planning for the runway, new terminal and associated transport links, which may be expected to face challenges in the courts from environmentalists and those immediately affected.

Assuming that the proposal survives its ordeal by planning and construction progresses, what lessons can be learned from other airport projects worldwide? 

Sustained commitment from government and stakeholders: The experience of building the new airport at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong is an example of what can be achieved when there is a political imperative to complete the project on time, in that case the territory’s handover to China. While the process was fraught and the airport was only just operational in time, it was nevertheless completed before its drop-dead date. 

Time spent on planning is time well spent: This is particularly relevant with a project that will cause massive disruption to local transport and surrounding communities. The unexpected and late changes of design have a habit of causing disproportionate delay and cost, as recent experiences in the Gulf region have shown.

Choose your contractors wisely and be careful how risk is apportioned: It is tempting to place most of the risk on the contractor, but if things go badly then this may well lead to termination, as in the case of Gibraltar Airport, or claims, such as on Manchester’s second runway.

The pricing method needs to steer a course between controlling cost in a cost-plus model – which presumably will be adopted at Heathrow in one of its variants – and limiting claims in a lump-sum approach. A standing disputes board and a provision that decisions can’t be challenged before completion can help prevent disputes affecting progress.

Enjoy good luck. The above can help ease a project to a successful completion, but factors beyond the control of any of the parties concerned, such as spikes in commodity prices (as happened with Indonesian sand), unforeseen ground conditions (Gibraltar, again) and shortages of materials and labour, can still affect progress even if they are mitigated by effective procurement.

Nicholas Dennys QC is a barrister at Atkin Chambers

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