What will runways of the future look like?

Runways are newsworthy at the moment: they require large amounts of flat ground in a world where land is at a premium. Few people want new runways next to their houses, but everybody craves the convenience of air travel…

This is why runways need to adapt when it comes to the future of aviation. How can we build runways close to cities that are rapidly expanding, and how have we previously worked around obstacles to make runways viable?

The increasing size of planes must be taken into account when planning the runways of the future. The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger plane currently in use and requires a mammoth runway - nearly 4,000 metres long. Although larger planes are earning airlines more money, runways must be adapted or abandoned, adding cost. It’s a do or die situation for airports hoping to remain a global hub. And if there’s no space, then alternative plans will have to be considered.

In the past we have tried to get around lack of land and our need for runways by building airports on reclaimed land, and this is a trend that is set to continue into the future. Japan’s Nagasaki Airport and New York’s La Guardia Airport are built on reclaimed land and China has announced plans to build Dalian Airport (left) on reclaimed lands in 2016, when transport capacity is predicted to reach saturation. 

The plans for the airport suggest that Dalian will have four runways and will become one of the world’s biggest to be built using landfill. While architects Foster and Partners’ 2013 proposal for another major London airport in the Thames Estuary was designed with reclaimed land in mind.


Stilts have been used to build runways for decades, and remain a viable alternative for building runways on land. Funchal Airport (below), the main gateway to the island of Madeira is well known for its stilted airport. As well as being awarded an outstanding structure award in 2004, the airport is frequently included in global roundups of world’s most dangerous airports, but this is due mainly to the number of hours of training pilots must put into land at the airport. There’s a long drop at the end if you forget to brake!

As well as being built on reclaimed land, La Guardia’s runway is also built on steel piles which extend out into the sea. Building runways on stilts is a potential way to extend those airports who need to host large planes and remain a player on the global stage.

Several rather futuristic suggestions have been to build runways across cities on stilts; although this would most likely cure the space situation, runways need to be built with safety in mind, one of the reasons why Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport was closed down (the landing planes almost skimmed the rooftops of the local residential tower blocks.

Island airports

Three quarters of our world is covered by water. Some airports have started to think ingeniously about building runways on the sea. Kansai international airport is one such example, built on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay. Designed by Renzo Piano, the airport was placed on an island because Japan’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult to build sizeable runways. This was the solution. Kansai opened in 1994 to relieve pressure on Osaka International Airport, which now handles only domestic flights. 

As the number of people demanding air travel continues to grow, the future of air travel will need to consider airports that are open for 24 hours. Because of it’s location outside of the city, Kansai is able to operate all day and all night without disturbing anybody. However, it’s worth considering that the island is subsiding into the ocean faster than predicted. 

For airports of the future that could be built on artificial islands, architects and engineers will have the added complication of considering the impact of global warming on runways too. During storms, La Guardia has experienced runway flooding.

Patrick Yeung, CEO of Dragonair predicted in 2013 that we’d start to see the end of the "airport experience". This means people spending less money and time in airports, and more focus on the runway. Get to the airport and fly. With this in mind, the prediction is that runways will increase in importance, and will hopefully get a larger cut of funding as the airport shopping mall becomes less vital for passengers.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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