All options for expanding Britain’s airport capacity over the next 30 years are still on the table, including developing a single, massive airport or building new runways near London and in the regions, according to the independent body charged by the government with recommending future aviation policy.
“At one extreme the UK could focus on a single large airport to act as the sole focal point for long haul [flights] and acting as a hub for connections [to the rest of the country]. At the other, [it] could seek to develop a more dispersed system of airports … which would compete with each other,” said the Airports commission in a discussion paper published on Thursday.
But the paper, which gives no clues on which strategy the commission will finally recommend to government in 2015, accepts that Heathrow cannot be expanded in the short term and that politicians must consider the UK regions when they decide which airports to develop.
The paper makes no specific mention of the Thames estuary airport proposed by the London mayor, Boris Johnson, but suggests that London would not easily support two major “hubs”.
“We do not consider that spreading one airline’s hub operations over multiple airports in the London metropolitan area is likely to be a successful approach … [but] a complete alliance might find it possible to transfer the entirety of its network to a different airport if the capacity was available.”
The final decision, it says, will have to be weighed against two emerging global trends in air transport. Airlines are consolidating into international alliances working via networks of major “hubs”, but equally there has been a massive growth in low-cost and short haul carriers which are opening up large numbers of new routes. It is not clear, say the commissioners, if one will emerge as the future favourite.
Britain’s choice may be between what is best for the national economy and what the public wants, it suggests. On a national level, the model of a single giant hub airport “theoretically supports” the UK’s competitve position relative to other airports. But having several airports competing with each other would make it easier for new airlines to enter the market and potentially benefit passengers with cheaper tickets and more choice, says the paper.
The commisioners noted that Heathrow is already becoming a “global” airport at the expense of “regional” routes. The scarcity of slots in west London means that the number of destinations served has decreased, as airlines increase frequencies to the most profitable destinations. UK airports served by Heathrow have fallen from 10 in 2000 to only seven in 2013, it says.
“The big fear in places such as Belfast and Edinburgh is that if you only have a constrained airport like Heathrow, it will grow its links to China at the expense of regional flights – and to some extent that’s happened,” Sir Howard Davies, the chair of the commission, told the Independent.
A new generation of long-haul planes may also help determine the choice of strategy, the paper suggests. Britain could be relatively excluded from becoming a global hub because the new Airbus A350 and Boeing Dreamliner could enhance the geographical advantages of hubs in the Gulf region.
Davies said: “The Airports commission will need to give these arguments full and detailed consideration as we develop our assessment of the UK’s future aviation requirements. We believe it is particularly important to think about the way the aviation industry will change in the coming decades. Today’s industry is unrecognisable from the one a quarter of a century ago.”
Airports Commission hints at two-hub solution
The UK could support two airport hubs rather than one, according to the commission investigating aviation capacity constraints.
The Airports Commission said it should be possible for one of the three global airline alliances at Heathrow to move to another airport – the most obvious location being Gatwick – without any large scale damage to their operations.
“A complete alliance might … find it possible to transfer the entirety of its network [from Heathrow to another airport] if it chose to do so and the necessary capacity was available,” said the commission, in its airports operating models consultation document.
“Modelling work conducted for the Airports Commission by the [Civil Aviation Authority] demonstrates that if any of the alliances currently present at Heathrow – Star Alliance, Oneworld or SkyTeam – opted to relocate to either Gatwick, Luton or Stansted, theoretically this would not result in substantial connectivity losses for passengers of that alliance.”
The commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, said that if it concluded more airport capacity was needed, the factors that would influence an airline alliance in moving away from Heathrow could become a “key issue” for it to consider.
Gatwick, which is arguing against Heathrow’s expansion, wants a second runway and has expressed an interest in the possibility of becoming a hub by securing one of the global airline alliances.
The commission’s statement highlights how it is far from certain that capacity-squeezed Heathrow will succeed in its efforts to secure permission to build a third runway and possibly a fourth, the Financial Times reported.
The paper considers the distinguishing features of a hub or ‘focal’ airport and what enables an airport to assume this role, alongside other possible models for structuring airport capacity.
It discusses current trends in the global aviation sector, how they might develop in the future, and considers the potential implications for aviation capacity and connectivity in the UK.
Sir Howard said: “There is an important public debate in progress about the strengths and weaknesses of different airport operating models.
“The Airports Commission will need to give these arguments full and detailed consideration as we develop our assessment of the UK’s future aviation requirements.
“We believe it is particularly important to think about the way the aviation industry will change in the coming decades.
“Today’s industry is unrecognisable from the one a quarter of a century ago. This paper explores some of the possible future scenarios, which carry different implications for airport shape and capacity.”
The Commission set a deadline of July 13 for evidence to be submitted on the issues raised in the report.
The Commission paper states(page 46):
Could the UK support two focal airports?
4.42 The London airports system is estimated to be larger than that of any other city in the world – serving more than 140 million passengers in 2010 compared to approximately 103 million passengers at New York airports and 98 million passengers at Tokyo airports (the
second and third busiest airport systems).
Given the comparatively low proportion of transfer passengers at London airports compared to their European and Gulf competitors, this indicates an extremely substantial origin and destination market. For these reasons, the Commission has considered whether it may be viable for the London market to sustain two separate focal airports.
4.48 This analysis suggests that it would be very difficult for a single airline to spread
its hub operations over multiple airports. A complete alliance might, however, find it possible to transfer the entirety of its network to a different airport if it chose to do so and the necessary capacity was available.