Heathrow expansion: why not use airport capacity elsewhere?

Simon Calder
Grimshaw Architects

“I cannot let your comments regarding the plans for a third runway at Heathrow go unchallenged,” writes Caroline Wilson from Selby in North Yorkshire. She is referring to my observation that Heathrow and Gatwick are bursting at the seams while every other UK airport has spare capacity.

“The reason everyone goes from Heathrow or Gatwick is the rest of the country has little choice. Most of the brochures sent to me advertising holidays all depart from those two airports, or Manchester. This incurs extra cost and inconvenience.”

Ms Wilson points out nobody in Yorkshire, or for that matter the midlands or Scotland, actually wants to travel to London to fly. And she has an alternative. “Doncaster-Sheffield could be an excellent hub airport. They have the capacity to take any size of aircraft and the mainline railway runs next to it.

“This airport could be developed, and the high-speed rail link could be put in at a fraction of the cost of expanding Heathrow, without tunnelling the M25 under the runway.

“It is irresponsible of you to give the impression that consumers are driving this need for a third runway at Heathrow.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Ms Wilson that Heathrow and Gatwick are poorly placed for anyone who lives outside the home counties. Whether you live in Cornwall, Cumbria or Caithness, there is a more convenient – and more pleasant – airport nearby.

And as the freight logistics companies know, airports outside overcrowded southeast England provide excellent access, which is why East Midlands airport has a flourishing cargo business. So why don’t airlines harness the huge demand from outside London and operate more flights from regional airports?

Well, in a number of welcome cases they do. The Gulf airlines, notably Emirates and Qatar Airways, fly from airports across the UK, including Newcastle and Cardiff (though not yet Leeds Bradford), to their hubs at Dubai and Doha, with onward connections to Africa, Asia and Australasia.

But flying west, consider the prime US destination from the UK: New York. There are dozens of daily flights from Heathrow but only a handful from a few regional airports: Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Links from Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle have proved short-lived, even though each day hundreds of people from those cities fly to New York.

Two key issues for traditional airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are connectivity and traffic mix.

Airlines like to fly from busy airports because they can carry transfer passengers from a wide range of origins. And they really like airports which reliably deliver large numbers of business-class travellers, who typically pay five or 10 times as much as those of us in economy. While it is relatively easy to fill a plane with economy travellers in summer and over Christmas/new year, at other times it is the premium passengers who bankroll the operation.

Heathrow scores higher than any other hub in Europe on those metrics, and unfortunately the average UK regional airport scores poorly. Airlines also like to concentrate their operations at large hubs: British Airways gains flexibility and reduces costs by keeping its main operations focused on Heathrow and Gatwick.

Sir Howard Davies’s Airports Commission spent three years assessing the best way to meet the relentlessly rising demand for aviation, and unanimously chose a third runway at Heathrow – a decision endorsed (eventually) by the government.

In time, new aircraft such as the Airbus A321 XLR – an ultra-long-distance narrow-bodied jet – will open up more opportunities for point-to-point links. Newcastle to New York, for example, might work at last. And a proper high-speed rail network in the UK would have the dual benefits of reducing domestic flights and improving connections to the capital’s airports.

Meanwhile, Heathrow – and its continental counterparts, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris – will continue to grow. Relentlessly.

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