Heathrow or Gatwick? At least someone has made their mind up!

Garuda have become the latest of many airlines to move from Gatwick to Heathrow. There is a well-established pattern for foreign airlines to test the waters on the UK market at Gatwick and then, as soon as they can get slots, move to Heathrow. Better transport, a wider and wealthier catchment area and connections all over Europe and the rest of the world make Heathrow the aim for any airline flying to the UK.

Gatwick appears to work well for budget and leisure flights but that is it. Even the airlines who are succeeding at Gatwick at the moment, do not want a second runway because they fear they will have to pay for it.

The logic for a third runway at Heathrow is overwhelming but what would happen if the government took the easy option and decided in favour of Gatwick? No airline would willingly give up their position at Heathrow. Reduced charges at Gatwick probably would not tempt them either since they do not at the moment. If existing airlines at Gatwick were faced with higher charges to pay for the runway they might be forced to move all or some of their flights to Stansted or even Luton.

The pull of Heathrow is so strong that the only way to break it would be to close the airport completely. Clearly that s not going to happen.

Garuda know what they are doing – we must hope the government does too.


Boris and Heathrow (again)

The press is full of Boris Johnson putting himself forward as the candidate for Uxbridge and commentators  questioning how he can square this with his apparent desire to close Heathrow (which employs so many Uxbridge residents) and build a new airport in the wilds of the Thames Estuary.

For a man of Boris’s intellectual athleticism this is unlikely to prove a problem.

When he became Mayor, Boris had a problem with Heathrow. At that time, general public opinion in London appeared to be against Heathrow, so Boris had to join in. He surely knew that the plans for “Boris Island” would come to nothing. Even if it had been viable, the British hate huge public projects such as that. By backing the totally new airport, Boris had it both ways. He appeared to be following public opinion by opposing the expansion of Heathrow and he was making a very strong case for London to have one major hub airport. 

So, he knew very well Boris Island would not work, he also insisted London should have one major airport. He even said several times that “Heathrow was the obvious answer” but then huffed and puffed with reasons why Boris Island would be better.

Sooner or later, he will come out of the closet and admit to being what he actually has been all along – a supporter of an expanded Heathrow.



The London airport Boris really wants

The preliminary report on London’s airports is due to be published in the next few days. Rumour suggests that it will not be taking up the plan for the new airport, somewhere in the Thames estuary, that has been actively promoted  by the Mayor, Boris Johnson.

Mr Johnson is said to be apoplectic and determined to fight any plan to increase Heathrow.

The novelist Will Self described Boris Johnson as “an enigma wrapped in a whoopee cushion. I can accept the whoopee cushion bit but I don’t think Mr Johnson is at all enigmatic. He is simply a – very clever – Machiavellian politician.

As London’s Mayor there was no way he could support development at Heathrow because there is such a large group of people in west London who are opposed to it. These people seem unaware of the damage that the possible closure of Heathrow would do to their local economies. The economic benefits of Heathrow stretch from the areas around the airport where the staff live right the way through to Hammersmith and the West End where international corporations have built offices for easy access to the airport.

The plan for “Boris Island” was a very smart diversionary tactic He surely knew that the British aversion to big projects made this a non-starter but by pushing for it he was able to make two important points. London needs one major hub airport with several runways and expanding Gatwick and Stansted will not help.

So, knowing full well that his plan did not stand a chance, he was able to make the argument for a major hub airport with the inevitable logic that if Boris Island was rejected, the only possible solution would be expansion of Heathrow.

In interviews, he has even said that expansion of Heathrow is the obvious solution and would be much cheaper before going on to extol the virtues of the mythical Boris Island.

It is interesting that the London Evening Standard has pursued a similar line in its editorials. It cannot possibly support expansion of Heathrow and yet, they have been at pains to point out the serious downsides of all the other options.

Heathrow needs three – ideally four – runways. If it only gets one extra, then they really should not be allowed to increase traffic by very much at all. A “spare” runway is essential back-up to stop the dreadful delays that come after the most minor problems with the two over-used existing ones. Even if they add two new runways, traffic should not increase by very much. Bigger aircraft, and especially quieter aircraft, could ensure that noise levels do not increase – and might even diminish.

Hopefully, Boris will get the result he really wants – and be able to deny any responsibility for it.

Heathrow – the solution

London needs more hub capacity. Piecemeal growth at various airports (a new runway here and there) won’t work. Every capital city needs one principal airport where major airlines can concentrate their services most effectively.

Expansion of Heathrow is the obvious solution. There is space to create a four-runway airport there. It would be one of the cheaper options available and can be achieved fairly quickly. The only stumbling block is public opposition. Successive governments have run scared of upsetting the residents of west London, and the wealthy areas further out, who have been vocal in their objection.

If a new airport has to be developed elsewhere, the economic impact on the area around Heathrow could be devastating. Of course, Hounslow, Feltham and the other districts immediately close to the airport would be hardest hit because they supply so much of the labour to the airport. However, the impact would be felt in the wealthier areas as well – Richmond, Windsor, Chiswick and even Fulham have a huge economic benefit from being close to such a major airport. All you need do is count the number of major international corporations who have their UK offices in the “Heathrow corridor” to see the huge potential loss if a new hub were developed elsewhere.

Yet local residents seem oblivious to this. Even in Hounslow, which depends heavily on the airport, around 50% of the local population appear to object to airport expansion.

A few weeks ago, Birmingham Airport made a publicity splash by announcing plans to build an extra runway and become a major alternative hub to London. The reaction in the local media was strangely positive – all those extra jobs and investment seemed very tempting. Maybe locals did not take the plan very seriously – the Birmingham Airport CEO is rather a publicity junky and too keen on making grandiose statements about future plans that hide the rather mundane current growth.

However, there is an important fact here. Everyone seems agreed that they want jobs, investment and economic growth. A major new airport will drive that.

The only thing that is holding back growth at Heathrow is public opinion. Maybe it is time for a simple question to the few million people that live in the broader Heathrow area. Do you want it or not? 

If the answer is negative, there are other areas that do. They should be given the chance – and if west London turns into an economic backwater, as the old docklands did, then so be it.

Airports and shopping

Some businesses might be struggling but consultants seem to be thriving. Whilst there are some who know what they are doing and understand the field they work in, there are too many who seem to think the more they complicate an issue, the cleverer they will appear.

I am just recovering from reading a tedious report on the sale of slots at Gatwick by flybe to easyJet. Lots of graphs, charts and complicated theories as to the the precise strategies of flybe, Gatwick and easyJet almost completely hide the real reason for the sale.

- Flybe has been losing money badly for several years. They have now embarked on a turn-around plan which is, almost, their last chance. Gatwick was not central to their route network and if someone is going to offer £20 million for the slots, you grab the cash with both hands.

- Flybe blamed Gatwick’s discriminatory pricing which hits smaller aircraft but other airports discriminate in a similar way. The simple fact is that flybe badly needed the cash – though obviously they could not say that.

- You might have thought that Gatwick, with its stated ambitions to be a rival to Heathrow, would actually want to keep flybe because of the domestic feeder traffic, but economics come before lofty ambition. Even ignoring the money they receive from each take off and landing, Gatwick wanted bigger aircraft because bigger aircraft have more passengers and more passengers means more business for the shops. Also, international passengers spend more than domestic passengers. Gatwick could surely have done a deal with flybe had they wanted to but their departure suits them very well – the choice between 80 passengers going to Newcastle and 180 going to Athens is a no-brainer. The airport will gain a little from increased landing fees with the bigger aircraft but it stands to gain much more from the additional retail revenue.

Simple – no graphs or pie-charts required.

Airport retail is hugely important to all travellers. Those who complain about the crowds of shops disturbing airport terminals really need to consider how much their tickets would cost without the income. No passenger is forced to shop – but we all enjoy the benefits.

And Heathrow has just announced a very interesting new benefit – free wi-fi. Once again, the press manage to miss the point. Almost every story I have read on the subject says the airport will be offering 45 minutes free wi-fi use each day. Some then pontificate about the aim of Heathrow to appear to be offering more, but they ignores the crucial part of the deal. You can actually get 90 minutes each day – all you need do is enter your Heathrow Rewards card number. Linking the free wi-fi to their shopping reward card is a very clever move. Anyone using the free wi-fi is going to be tempted to sign up to get the extra minutes – and if they sign up, the airport will have their email address and be able to hit them with lots of profitable add-ons.

Airports and shopping – the two are inextricably linked.


No news from Heathrow

Yesterday was the first day of arriving Olympic athletes at Heathrow. The news channels had their reporters stationed on the Bath Road (with nice views of the runway but nowhere near the terminals) ready to give non-stop action reports on the shambles as it happened. No doubt producers had opposition politicians lined up to come into the studio to call for a judicial enquiry into the Government fiasco. Newspapers probably had their front-page headlines ready.

Then, nothing happened. Well, athletes arrived and departed for their accommodation. One coach driver got lost and some Australians missed their sailing gear but were reunited with it after less than an hour. It would take a fairly desperate journalist to make much of a story out of that. 

All the political parties are responsible for the serious over-crowding at Heathrow which is due to the lack of a proper airport policy for over thirty years.  Nor can the media avoid responsibility since many newspapers have been virulent in their opposition to new runways or airports. Both the Labour and Coalition governments have cut staff at the Border Agency and given it extra duties. What can you expect?

The media and opposition politicians will deny it till they are blue in the face but it is hard to escape the impression that some people actually want the Olympics to be a bit of a mess. There is a dividing line between a media and opposition that holds the government to account and one that positively wills it to lose. 

Yesterday was Heathrow’s first test and it passed. Let’s hope it can do as well for the rest of the Olympics and then, maybe, the newspapers will run editorials praising the airport management and Harriet Harman will appear on Newsnight to congratulate all those responsible for making the airport work in such difficult conditions. That would be fun.

All-night flights at Heathrow

Emirates have floated the idea of flying their Airbus A380′s into Heathrow during the current curfew hours. They argue that the A380′s are much quieter than other aircraft and disruption will be minimal.

Unfortunately, this rather misses the point.

If you live in a city, especially if you are near an aircraft flight-path, you get used to noise. It is not just aircraft noise but traffic, police sirens and all the general hub-hub of a big city.

At the moment, the airport is allowed to accept some flights during its normal closed hours when there has been significant disruption to schedules due to weather or some other problem. During normal hours, aircraft are taking off or landing every minute or so. The noise just blends into the background, along with all the standard noise of the city. The occasional “out of hours” landing causes much more disruption because it happens when there is relatively little other noise. Instead of a fairly constant drone, which your brain blocks off, there is a sudden, loud noise for a couple of minutes as the aircraft passes above.

As for A380′s being so much quieter than other jets. Maybe they are, but they are certainly not silent!

In other words, a couple of one-off landings by A380′s during the middle of the night will cause much greater disruption than any normal flight during the day.

Definitely not a good idea!

Third-world Heathrow

When I heard on the BBC News this morning that a senior aide involved in the papal visit to the UK  had put his foot in it by saying that arriving at Heathrow airport was like landing in a “Third World” country, I’m afraid my first – actually only – thought was that his was a not inappropriate response to the continuing nightmare that is the  traveller’s experience at Heathrow. It was only later that it dawned on me that he was actually commenting in a none-too supportive way on Britain’s multiculturism. Was I alone in this misunderstanding?

Heathrow's Terminal 4 back in business but…

Heathrow Terminal 4  is now very much back in business. It was vacated gradually by British Airways as the airline moved to Terminal 5 and, one by one, other airlines have come into the building as it has been modernised. The airline is now the home of SkyTeam members (including Air France, Delta and Czech) and a number of both large and small non-alliance carriers, such as Emirates, Etihad, Malaysia Airlines and others. The terminal definitely offers better conditions for airlines and their passengers than those enjoyed at their previous terminals but there is a catch – the terminal is rather less accessible than it was in the past. Previously, all Tube trains called at both Terminal 4 and the central station for 1, 2 and 3 but now only one in three trains goes to the terminal with more going to 1, 2 and 3 and then on to 5. Most coach services are concentrated on the central area and 5, and hotel and car park shuttle services are also concentrated on the other four terminals.

This is not to say that Terminal 4 is inaccessible, but wise travellers should plan their  journey to Heathrow with extra care when they use this terminal. Some hotels and car parks are much more convenient and have dedicated shuttles, and these are obviously preferable to others which may involve one shuttle to the central area and then another to Terminal 4. The same applies to coaches. If you are arriving by Tube, you should note that the interval between trains is likely to be at least ten minutes rather than the previous service of one train every five minutes at peak periods.