New fears of Luton Airport expansion as airport reaches capacity ten years early

An Easyjet plane takes off from a snowy Luton Airport

An Easyjet plane takes off from a snowy Luton Airport - Credit: Archant

Luton Airport is fast approaching its 18 million passengers a year capacity 10 years ahead of schedule – prompting fears of fresh expansion plans.

A plane takes off from Luton Airport

A plane takes off from Luton Airport - Credit: Archant

Two years after the near-doubling of passenger numbers was approved by its Luton borough council owner, the airport is already close to reaching its maximum annual threshold.

But local campaigners who have complained about more planes flying over heavily populated areas have effectively been told they are an ‘optical illusion’.

At a recent district council scrutiny committee meeting, Wheathampstead councillor Sandra Wood asked airport bosses: “How near are you to operating at capacity?”

Operations director Neil Thompson admitted that there had been “one big change” since the airport had received expansion approval to cater for 18 million passengers annually.

An Ryanair plane takes off at Luton Airport

An Ryanair plane takes off at Luton Airport - Credit: Archant

Whereas it had originally planned to reach that figure by around 2026-28, that now looks like it could be as early as 2020 if not before.

“For this year, we will be just under 15 million passengers,” he revealed.

The admission has prompted concern among councillors and campaigners who have been on the receiving end of complaints from residents about increased disturbance from Luton’s planes.

They are worried that should the airport seek to expand yet again, it will further crowd our roads and skies.

After the scrutiny meeting, St Albans campaigner Julian Griffiths of Save Our Skies (SOS) told the Herts Advertiser that the group has expressed its concern about a recent increase in planes “clearly seen over the city”.

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But Luton Airport dismissed the complaint, telling SOS: “Sometimes aircraft can be perceived to be closer than they actually are, and many are larger jets, with considerably wider wing spans, which are often perceived from ground level to be lower and closer to certain locations due to their size.”

Julian said: “Clearly St Albans is suffering some sort of optical illusion! We have asked the airport for information about where aircraft are actually flying and to date have not received a sensible answer.”

He said that while Luton had recently reduced the width of a particular flight path to encourage pilots to stop straying over residential areas, it appeared many planes were flying above homes on the city’s edges, particularly over Sandridge and Marshalswick rather than within the 2km-wide corridor, which is leading to extra noise.

Julian said he would not be surprised if Luton ended up flying more than 18 million people a year, as the airport had previously gone beyond approved passenger throughput.

Long-running campaign group London Luton Airport Town and Villages Communities Committee (LLATVCC) also warned there was “no doubt that Luton’s passenger numbers are growing at a prodigious rate” and members expect the 18 million passenger threshold to be reached in 2019.

The group said Luton borough council, which receives £27 million income annually from the airfield, would likely ‘nod through’ any application to change a condition which currently states that it cannot exceed 18 million passengers in any 12-month period.

A spokesman for LLATVCC told this paper: “The limit is effectively unenforceable – they have previously breached the limit on passenger numbers. They are hardly going to put turnstiles up, and once they reach 18 million people, say you can’t come in.”

He said given the borough council receives £2.86 per passenger, there was little incentive to stop the airport’s continued growth.

When asked about possible expansion plans, an airport spokeswoman said: “The current situation is that our application and concession agreement to run the airport allows us to increase capacity to 18 million passengers a year.

“We’ve just started a £110 million investment programme to do that. We are focused on delivering that transformation and making sure the local community benefits from the new jobs and opportunities that are being created by the development of the airport.”

• Just before Christmas in 2013, Luton council approved the near doubling of passenger throughput, despite hundreds of objections. In 2014 then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles rubber-stamped the bid, by refusing to call it in for independent scrutiny.

• Four years ago Herts county council said it was ‘stunned’ to learn of Luton’s discussions with the planning inspectorate behind closed doors, about expanding the airport’s capacity to 30 million people per annum. However this was not included in its 2012/13 scheme.

• In 1998 the airport’s owner granted permission for infrastructure allowing it to be capable of increasing passenger numbers from three million to five million people per annum. But in 2008, 10.2 million passengers passed through – a figure which dropped to 9.5 million in 2011.