By Peter Schlesinger
July 22, 2013

Could Heathrow close?

Heathrow airport, Great Britain’s major international hub, handled a whopping 70 million passengers last year. Its two runways, however, cannot allow for much more than that. Enter the Davies Airports Commission—so-called after its chairman, Sir Howard Davies—which is aiming to fix the UK’s at-capacity airports.

One option? London mayor Boris Johnson wants to buy the airport, shut it down, and replace it with a mega-airport on an island in the Thames River’s estuary to the East.

Mayor Johnson outlined his plans a few days ago to the commission, and hopes to transform Heathrow’s land into a neighborhood for up 250,000, as the Guardian’s Gwyn Topham reports. The new airport could have four runways operating by 2029, all for a price tag of over $75 billion. And on Friday, renowned design firm Foster + Partners formally submitted its architectural plans for the island-hub.

But the mayor’s plans face stiff opposition. First, environmentalists are vehemently against the plans to build a massive airport in the Thames estuary. Second, many in the UK believe that Heathrow should remain open. London’s main international airport, it employs around 114,000 individuals (including those working at nearby hotels and related businesses). As the Economist argued in March, “If the purpose of airport expansion is to help lay the foundations for faster economic growth, sabotaging one of the country’s most successful business clusters is an odd way to go about it.”

Of course, Mayor Johnson is not the only one presenting plans to the commission. Other options on the table include building a third runway to the west Heathrow (much to the horror of West Londoners, who would suffer from excessive noise), building more runways to the north of Heathrow (a plan the Economist considers the wisest), and constructing extra runways at Gatwick and Stansted airports (a notion Heathrow advocates despise, wanting to keep the airport as London's main hub).

So what will it be? We’ll have to wait until summer of 2015, when the commission is expected to reach its verdict. Until then, look forward to long lines at Heathrow.

Peter Schlesinger is a research assistant at Travel + Leisure and a member of the Trip Doctor news team. Follow him on Twitter at @pschles08.