Surprise! After campaigning on a platform that insisted that London Heathrow’s cheap-to-build third runway would not be realised, and claiming aviation growth in the south-east was environmentally unacceptable and economically unjustified, the UK coalition government and the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, have suddenly put political will behind the idea of a replacement for Heathrow by building a Hong Kong/Kansai-style mega airport in the Thames Estuary. It seems that the Mayor and the maturing ‘new’ government has finally understood the significance of aviation as a facilitator of global economic business… maybe as a result of seeing Frankfurt recently celebrating the opening of its fourth runway at a time when the UK is feeling generally uncomfortable about its competitiveness vis-à-vis Germany.
Following the lead of Berlin, Hong Kong, Munich, Oslo, Paris, Osaka…
Other cities have faced the issue of what to do when a busy and successful airport runs out of room to grow. Hong Kong, Munich, and Oslo have all built new airports further away from the city centres in the past 20 years and, when the new airport was opened, they closed the old one. Berlin will do the same next year when services start at Brandenburg and Berlin Tegel closes.
Compared to any major city on Earth, London has a lot of competing airports – Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, London City, as well as London Southend (also east of London by the Thames and now an easyJet base). Given the competitive ownership of these, it seems unlikely that any could be simply persuaded to close.
Heathrow’s characteristics: connections and foreign passengers
The recent publication of the CAA Passenger Survey Report 2010, which included looking at passenger characteristic at all London airports (except Southend), reveals how Heathrow differs from the other London airports.
|Heathrow (LHR)||Gatwick (LGW)||Stansted (STN)||Luton (LTN)||London City (LCY)|
|Passengers 2010 (m)||65.75||31.35||18.57||8.74||2.78|
|Passenger ‘growth’ 2010||-0.2%||-3.1%||-6.9%||-4.2%||-0.6%|
|Connecting traffic share||35.8%||8.4%||6.4%||2.4%||1.9%|
|UK resident (Business)||12.8%||9.4%||9.3%||13.8%||31.2%|
|UK resident (Leisure)||28.9%||65.4%||48.2%||56.6%||18.1%|
|Foreign resident (Business)||17.3%||5.1%||7.1%||5.1%||31.9%|
|Foreign resident (Leisure)||41.0%||20.0%||35.3%||24.4%||18.8%|
|Business traffic share||30.1%||14.5%||16.4%||18.9%||63.1%|
|Foreign resident share||58.3%||25.1%||42.4%||29.5%||50.7%|
|Source: UK CAA Passenger Survey Report 2010|
Most obviously, Heathrow is the only London area airport where more than 10% of passengers are connecting from one flight to another. At Heathrow, this is around 36%, which is still lower than at several other major hub airports in Europe. Obviously, connecting passengers would have no issue with using an airport further from central London, or with a location where the catchment area is reduced by being next to the sea, as these passengers would never leave the airport. Despite crude claims that connecting passengers do not bring benefits to the UK economy, many long-haul routes are reliant on feed from connecting traffic (often at both ends of the route) to make a service viable and, indeed, due to Heathrow’s existing runway capacity shortage, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris all offer direct services to more destinations than Heathrow.
Business passengers constitute around three in every 10 passengers at Heathrow, more than at Gatwick, Luton and Stansted (and considerably less than the 63% at London City Airport, although this is a unique style airport serving the financial district).
Heathrow also has the highest share of passengers who live outside of the UK – 60% of passengers are resident abroad and over 40% are much-needed visiting tourists. These passengers would presumably be very happy to arrive at a showcase, efficient airport with good transport links to wherever they plan to stay.
Cost/benefit analysis versus grand vision
The appeal of replacing Heathrow with an estuary airport would depend on the transport links provided to and from the new airport – and bizarrely far greater volumes of people are likely to be nuisance-impacted by the new road and railways needed by the new airport than there would by another runway at Heathrow, which is already fully-served by ground transport infrastructure.
Besides having less environmental impact on both people and nature, a simple scientific cost/benefit analysis would show that a third runway at Heathrow would be fashionably much cheaper – Frankfurt’s new fourth runway cost only €600 million – while options for a new Thames airport have been floated around the €70 billion mark (about half a Greek bailout package).
But while the cost of a Thames Estuary airport would be huge, it would resolve the issue of London airport capacity for the foreseeable future, if not the futures of the many other airports. It would also no doubt create much wealth and jobs – after all, Europe and the UK does have world-leading airport technology suppliers (several of which were involved in building the Hong Kong Airport). And, most importantly from a route development perspective, it would renew London’s competitive edge versus its European rivals.
So while a third runway at Heathrow would be the simplest, cheapest, and speediest competitive option, maybe it is time for the UK to embrace a more continental approach to long-term planning. Maybe, after the apparent success of delivering the Olympic facilities, perhaps the UK now has the confidence, appetite, and belief in Hoover Dam-style grand projects. After all, many of the Olympic facilities are in East London – the largest port in the world until the 1950s when it was destroyed by a total lack of vision, investment and competitiveness… does any of this sound familiar?