A third runway at Heathrow ‘was a Herculean task before Covid and I think it’s impossible now’, says IAG’s Willie Walsh © PA

The chief executive of Heathrow’s biggest airline customer said the £14bn third runway project was now “impossible” due to Covid-19, as the airport got the go-ahead to appeal against a court ruling that blocked its expansion plans. 

Willie Walsh, chief of British Airways’ parent company IAG, on Thursday said: “There isn’t going to be a third runway. It was a Herculean task before Covid and I think it’s impossible now in this environment.” 

While Mr Walsh has in the past supported expansion at Heathrow, he has long been critical of the current scheme, saying he has no confidence in the airport’s management to deliver a new runway cost-effectively. 

His comments come as Heathrow airport was on Thursday given the go-ahead by the Supreme Court to appeal against an earlier ruling that blocked its plans to build the third runway. 

The runway plans were thrown into disarray earlier this year when the Court of Appeal concluded that the government had failed to assess the impact of the expansion on international climate change agreements. It ruled that the government’s aviation national policy statement was therefore unlawful. The government left it to Heathrow to make its own legal challenge.

The UK’s highest court said it would hear an appeal on this issue but no date has been set for the hearing. 

Mr Walsh said: “If Heathrow want to build a third runway they will have to acquire Waterside which is the British Airways head office. We’d sell it to them tomorrow . . . I suspect they are not going to be rushing over here to shake my hand with the view to buy Waterside.” 

He added: “I still think the challenges facing Heathrow are immense and even greater now.” 

The airport operator has already signalled that it will review its decision on whether to proceed with the runway in light of current turbulence in the aviation market, but will push ahead with the appeal regardless.

John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, last week told the Financial Times: “If we are successful in protecting and building the UK economy we will need that third runway, whether

it’s in 10 or 15 years’ time, I don’t know.”

He added: “We’re privately funding it ourselves so we will have to make a rational decision about making that investment. But I think the UK will need it.” 

Even if Heathrow does go ahead with the project, it will face at least another two-year delay — pushing back its completion to the beginning of the 2030s — because of the appeal process and the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Responding to the impacts of Covid-19 is our priority right now. We do believe that once the benefits of air travel and connectivity have been restored in years to come, an expanded Heathrow will be required,” a spokesperson said on Thursday.

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