21st May, 2013
The latest ‘issues’ paper from the Airports Commission considers ‘airport operating models’ and whether the UK would in future be best served by a single large airport acting as the focal point for all long-haul connectivity and domestic links to regional airports; by a dispersed system of airports competing with each other on long-haul connectivity as well as on service standards and price; or by some combination of the two.
The analysis effectively challenges the assumption that the only options are hubs at Heathrow or a new, purpose-built airport such as the various schemes promoted for the Thames Estuary. Suggesting the term ‘focal airport’ for large airports attracting significant transfer traffic and long haul routes, the paper argues that Heathrow need not have a monopoly in providing the facilities through which airlines could choose to hub.
Luton, Stansted and Gatwick, the paper argues, are easily accessible from within most of Greater London, and airlines have increasingly become part of ‘alliances’ which, if they choose to relocate all their operations from Heathrow to another London airport, could preserve 90% or more of passenger traffic. The fact that Heathrow currently operates more hub services than other airports is likely to relate, suggests the Commission, to its current physical size, to its proximity to affluent travellers in west London, and to historical precedent.
AEF has in the past criticised the assumption that the UK’s economic success rests on retention of our ‘hub status’ and on outcompeting other European hubs in attracting transfer traffic, so we welcome the fact that Commission is considering a range of options for how the UK’s aviation needs might be met. But we have also argued that growth in aviation connectivity – either through a ‘focal’, hub airport or through a more dispersed airports system – may not deliver the economic and social benefits that are sometimes assumed. Any conclusions about what kind of airports operational model would best suit the UK should be made only after addressing the question of whether aviation growth is either required economically or justified environmentally.