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London Luton Airport: “An airport to be proud of”

Luton Rising

7 min read Partner content

London Luton Airport wants to increase its passenger capacity from 19 million to 32 million by 2043. Paul Kehoe, the new chair of Luton Rising, tells PoliticsHome why the expansion will benefit the local community and beyond

Luton has changed a lot in the last 100 years. Once best known for its hat industry and its car manufacturing, these days it’s a vibrant, diverse town with a strong local economy and outstanding connectivity by road, rail and air.

London Luton Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the UK, is an integral part of the town’s success. The largest employer in Luton, it supports 28,400 jobs in the UK – 10,900 through direct employment. It provides low-cost scheduled flights to more than 100 destinations across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and, in 2019, added around £1.8 billion to UK GDP. Its location is second to none – it sits at the centre of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and just 35 miles from central London.

“The airport has increasingly become the dominant engine – the powerhouse – of Luton,” says Paul Kehoe CBE, who became independent chair of Luton Rising in January this year (2024).

Luton Rising is the trading name of London Luton Airport Ltd. Its sole shareholder is Luton Council and the airport is owned entirely for community benefit and not by private shareholders. It prides itself on being the most socially impactful airport in the country, supporting and improving lives across the communities it serves. In 2019 it invested 20 times more per passenger than any other UK airport in local community causes.

Mr Kehoe has taken up his role at an exciting time. Luton Rising is bidding to expand London Luton Airport and increase passenger capacity from 19 million to 32 million a year by around 2043. As well as making the best use of its existing runway to accommodate increasing demand, it wants to build a new terminal and expand the current terminal, parts of which date back to the 1970s.

Mr Kehoe has a wealth of experience in the aviation industry and is no stranger to London Luton Airport. He was managing director of London Luton Airport from 2001 to 2005 and was a non-executive director for two years before that. He has also served as CEO of Birmingham and Bristol International airports, Gulf Air Group in Bahrain, and as managing director of Belfast International Airport.

‘It’s a great honour to be leading Luton Rising and shaping the airport’s future,” he says. “London is the number one city in the world bar none for air transportation and Luton is part of that – so for London Luton Airport to play a major role in the world’s most connected city is absolutely fundamental to the success of the town.”

Luton Rising is confident that the expansion proposals will create new job opportunities in an area that needs them – bringing an extra 4,400 jobs to Luton and 6,100 to the three counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. An assessment by Oxford Economics suggests that London Luton’s Airport’s contribution to UK GDP will reach £3.3 billion (in 2019 prices) by 2043 if the expansion gets the go-ahead.

Mr Kehoe believes that the airport expansion is crucial – for jobs, for connectivity, for the community and for passengers.

“The airport has reached its natural level of passenger numbers for the size of facility that we have today,” he says.

“Tweaks can be made here and there, flight profiles can be changed slightly, and slightly bigger aeroplanes brought in, but, ultimately, it’s tweaking. The demand for aviation is now back at pre-COVID levels and there is still demand for people to travel for pleasure, for visiting friends and relations and for business.

“Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are effectively full, London City has got spare capacity and Luton has a tiny amount of spare capacity – but we also have a plan that could allow us to put an extra 10 or 13 million passengers through the airport – which would help with that demand for the London market.

“One thing that I learned from Bahrain, when I was CEO of the Gulf Air Group, was that the government invested in aviation – because aviation was the economic airbridge that kept Bahrain in business. Aviation does the same for the UK and therefore Luton has to play its natural part.”

London Luton Airport is a major economic driver and employer in an area that has substantial pockets of deprivation and “needs levelling up”.

“In a town with a singular mission to eradicate poverty by 2040, what we need to do is create opportunities for people not only at the airport but in those ancillary industries that rely on the airport,” says Mr Kehoe. “It’s about actively making the asset work for the community in such a way that they benefit. But the benefits don’t just stop at Luton. They go beyond that.”

Since 1998 Luton Rising has contributed more than £480 million to local charities, voluntary organisations, and front-line services. And, as part of the expansion proposals, a new Community First Fund will be established to support areas of high deprivation and finance decarbonisation programmes in Luton and its surrounding areas, providing an extra £1 on top of current funding for every additional passenger travelling through the airport as a result of the expansion.

Luton Rising is also developing other assets it owns – for example, there are plans for Green Horizons Park to become a development site focused on science and innovation in the mobility sector – including aviation, aerospace, vehicle manufacturing and advanced engineering.

While London Luton Airport is currently a low-cost operation, with eight airlines flying in and out, Mr Kehoe hopes that the proposed expansion will enable the airport to “widen its base” and handle flights to longer-haul destinations. Luton has developed “a particular niche” in the business travel market and he believes that it’s important to secure that part of the market too – “because if those decision makers can make a positive contribution to Luton, we should take it”. 

He's well aware, however, that airport expansions can be controversial, with negative impacts amongst the positive. With that in mind, Luton Rising has proposed a series of sustainability measures which it believes are “some of the most far-reaching put forward by a UK airport”.

These measures include a unique Green Controlled Growth (GCG) framework that will set “robust” limits on the airport’s impact on air quality, aircraft noise, road traffic and carbon emissions from ground operations and surface areas and ensure that carbon emissions, air pollution and noise pollution don’t exceed 2019 limits.

The airport’s performance on these operational carbon emission measures against the GCG framework will be monitored by an independent environmental scrutiny group and will be legally binding.

“I don’t think there’s such a document or strategy like this in place at any other airport in the UK,” says Mr Kehoe.

The airport expansion plans include infrastructure enhancements and initiatives to support the target of achieving zero-emission ground operations by 2040 – a requirement of the government’s Jet Zero Strategy announced in 2022.

Some have raised concerns about losing part of Wigmore Valley Park, which adjoins the airport, because of the expansion, but Luton Rising has pledged to make it 10 per cent bigger, improve facilities and create new areas of natural habitat. 

Luton Rising’s goal is for at least 45 per cent of passenger journeys to and from the airport to be made by public transport and other sustainable methods by 2039. The launch in 2023 of Luton DART (Direct Air-Rail Transit), an ultra-modern passenger transit system that connects Luton Airport Parkway station to the airport in under four minutes, is going a long way to make this possible. “You get off at Luton Parkway, you change level and you get whisked into the airport,” says Mr Kehoe. “It’s a phenomenal step-change.” 

The Planning Inspectorate is due to deliver its recommendation on the airport expansion proposals to the Secretary of State for Transport in May, and he will make a decision on the Development Consent Order (DCO) later in the year.

“With modern techniques and modern technology, we can build something that Luton will be proud of,” says Mr Kehoe. “There’s an opportunity for greater community net benefit by this airport than any other in the UK and the range of opportunity it will bring to the town and beyond is quite amazing.”

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