The Hub Airport Debate

It’s a crisp early autumn morning in the Province of Quebec, Canada, and the world’s biggest airport is just hours from its official opening.

Coach loads of VIPs are heading north-west from Montreal to watch the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcome the first arrival at Mirabel International Airport.

Among its more noteworthy features, the new airport boasts an area bigger than that of the city it serves as well as the potential to handle 20 million passengers a year. Inevitably, the farmers who had to sell their land to make way for it are disgruntled. Some of today’s guests are muttering about it being out in the “boondocks» [remote area].

After the ceremony guests are free to wander through the terminal and marvel at its size and spaciousness. For the British delegation it seems a far cry from crowded Heathrow and the protracted search for relief that’s become something of a national joke. Indeed, it’s now turned into virtually a mirror image of what’s happening here in Quebec today, October 4, 1975.

Just over a year earlier Harold Wilson’s new Labour Government in the UK had cancelled the ambitious Maplin airport project. Plans for the new airport on reclaimed land off the Essex coast — which had so caught former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath’s imagination — was rejected. In its place was a policy touted as more realistic as economic upheaval caused air traffic forecasts to be torn up.

There are many echoes of the mid-1970s in the current debate about UK airports policy. With the focus now on the case for a new gateway in the Thames Estuary versus further expansion at Heathrow, observers with long memories are warning that Mirabel shows what can happen if you build an airport in the wrong place. For today, Mirabel has been superseded as Montreal’s gateway by Dorval — the facility it was supposed to replace.

Colin Matthews, Heathrow’s Chief Executive, says: “Montreal’s attempts to operate two hubs saw one become an expensive white elephant.» Peter Morris, Chief Economist of consultancy Ascend, told a Royal Aeronautical Society conference that Mirabel was shunned by airlines and passengers because of its poor surface transport links.

Changed Landscape

In 2003 the UK government’s Future of Aviation White Paper foreshadowed the construction of a second runway at Stansted and a third at Heathrow. But, as the Airports Commission dryly noted: “Neither of these developments has yet occurred».

The White Paper’s publication had been preceded by the last in-depth review of UK airports policy to be conducted. That may only have been a decade ago but, as the Commission points out in the document offering guidance to organisations submitting evidence to it, “it is remarkable how much has changed since the last review».

Indeed it has. For one thing traffic forecasts have been adjusted downwards, partly due to recession, but also due to higher oil prices and taxation. The 2003 White Paper predicted that UK air traffic would grow to 600 million passengers per annum (mppa) by 2030, although 500 mppa was considered more likely. The latest Department for Transport forecasts suggest the 500mppa figure is now unlikely to be reached by 2050. The 2030 figure is now predicted to be around 325 mppa.

Concern about the impact of climate change has become more prominent since 2003.

The Stern Review, the 2008 Climate Change Act and the 2009 report of the Committee on Climate Change have altered the policy context significantly. And there have been big changes in the industry itself. The rise of low-cost carriers has led to consolidation among legacy airlines with the prospect of more to come. Airline alliances have become influential in shaping schedules and passenger behaviour. Bigger, more fuel-efficient and longer-ranging aircraft are already refreshing airline fleets.

And as airlines merge the bigger continental gateways have emerged as key long-haul hubs. Some have encouraged links with UK regional cities to by-pass London. The growing significance of hubs in the Gulf is giving travellers a wider range of options on long-haul routes, especially those to Asia. And that includes travellers from UK regions.

The pattern of airport ownership in Britain has changed profoundly too, following the Competition Commission’s 2007 report.

The British Airports Authority, although transformed by privatisation in the 1980s into BAA, retained its powerful voice in the debate about airport capacity. Now that’s gone.

BAA saw Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted as a system of complementary gateways, but they are now in separate ownership and they compete with each other.

The different owners profoundly disagree about some things. Colin Matthews, Chief Executive of Heathrow, talks about the need for a hub airport and insists there’s only one candidate: guess which he has in mind. Stewart Wingate, his counterpart at Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP)-owned Gatwick, takes the opposite view. “There simply isn’t the demand for a mega hub in London,» he says. Again, not surprisingly, Wingate sees London and the South East together as representing the UK’s aviation hub — “not one airport.»

It had been widely assumed that as one of its recommendations for boosting runway capacity in the short-term the Airports Commission would call for mixed-mode operations to be permitted permanently at Heathrow rather than just at peak times. Allowing take offs and landings on the same runway had seemed an obvious way of increasing runway capacity without pouring more concrete. This has been an issue that successive governments have shied away from and now it seems less likely. Heathrow is no longer calling for mixed mode because, says Matthews, “of the impact on local communities.» Heathrow’s apparent acceptance of the realities of local politics leans heavily on improving the noise climate for airport neighbours rather than degrading it.


Another option is for Northolt, the RAF station to the west of London, to be used for short-haul commercial flights. It is being suggested that even a straight replacement of the 7,000 business aircraft movements which currently use the airport every year and which could be moved to Farnborough, could make a significant difference. Veteran airports watcher and consultant Laurie Price argues: “Those 7,000 movements could translate into twice-daily services to UK domestic points that have lost their service to Heathrow such as Inverness, Newquay, Humberside, Carlisle, Liverpool and Teesside. That would give you re-access for connectivity.»

Malcolm Ginsberg, who edits an on-line business travel newsletter, insists: “Northolt is the answer to satisfy the Davies interim assessment». Over the longer term, the Northolt supporters argue, the runway could be re-aligned and the airport connected to Heathrow and central London by Underground or surface rail links. The pro-Northolt lobby also points out that in the immediate post-war years the airport was used as London’s short-haul gateway and was therefore Europe’s busiest for a time.

But Matthews is sceptical. He points out that the transfer time between Heathrow’s terminals 4 and 5 is already one hour. Passengers, he argues, “won’t go to Northolt because of the time delay». Instead, Heathrow wants to increase the efficiency of the local airspace and is calling for some rethinking of the procedures for handling aircraft at the airport. It stresses it isn’t seeking to lift the present annual cap of 480,000 flights.

Air traffic services provider NATS is advising the commission on these issues. Martin Rolfe, NATS Managing Director for Operations, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that NATS acknowledges the biggest air traffic bottleneck in the South East is runway capacity. A modernisation programme is being put into place, Rolfe says, but “obviously the difficulty with that is needing to know where the new capacity is going to be, coming out of the Airports Commission report. There are things we can do [to mitigate noise disturbance].

We can move stacks up higher, we can do more precision approaches with modern-day equipment on the aircraft.

Calling for more runway capacity at Heathrow, the Air League points out that changes in engine and aircraft technology, improved operating procedures, greater and better use of satellite navigation systems, improved air traffic management, descent profiles and track-keeping will continue to improve and minimise the environmental impacts. It believes that assumptions about aircraft noise made as recently as 2010 are already out of date. It says the Boeing 787’s noise footprint is 60% smaller than that of the aircraft it will replace, keeping the noise footprint well within the airport boundary.

In a further echo of 1974 it is also being suggested that the arrival of further Airbus A380s will reduce the number of aircraft movements at a time when the average load per movement at the airport is already topping 199. None of that carries much weight with those opposing Heathrow expansion.

By mid-June the Commission was still a month away from its deadline for receiving long-term options. But it was clear that the majority of development schemes involved either new buildings at or near Heathrow or a clean-sheet approach focused on sites in the Thames Estuary or the Hoo Peninsula between the Thames and Medway rivers.

Estuary Hub

“A new airport would be the most economically and environmentally efficient solution,» argues Daniel Moylan aviation advisor to the Mayor of London. He believes an estuary hub would cost around £30 billion and take 15 years to construct. But Robin Cooper, Director of Regeneration, Community and Culture for Medway Council says construction is more likely to take 25 years and cost as much as £100 billion.

In mid-June the Commission’s chair Sir Howard Davies, visited Medway on a factfinding mission. Not surprisingly, he was giving little away, although he conceded that the challenges involved in building surface transport links to an estuary airport would be “immense».

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee seems to have come to a similar conclusion. In a recent report it concludes: “Building an entirely new airport east of London could not be done without huge public investment in new ground transport infrastructure. The viability of an estuary hub airport would also require the closure of Heathrow — a course of action that would have unacceptable consequences for individuals, businesses in the vicinity of the existing airport and the local economy.»

Enlarged Heathrow

A third runway at Heathrow “is necessary» but the select committee also suggests that proposals for a four-runway airport west of the current site “may have merit, especially if expanding to locate two new runways westwards from the current site could curb the noise experienced by people under the flight path.»

Although the committee believes that new runways at other airports won’t provide a long-term solution to the shortage of hub capacity, it feels Gatwick’s management should be “encouraged» to develop a robust business case for a second runway.

London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, the man most closely identified with an estuary airport, isn’t impressed by the select committee’s findings. He believes a “super colossal airport slightly to the west of Heathrow» would cost no less than an estuary airport. He told listeners to the BBC’s Today programme that rather than, “moving Heathrow slightly to the west it would probably be cheaper to move London slightly to the east!

Airport consultants Mott Macdonald have been working on a range of plans for Heathrow. Options range from reconfiguring the current airport with two runways and a new terminal layout to an entirely new four-runway facility on sites west of London. The general aviation airfield at White Waltham, Berkshire and the Second World War airfield of Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, have been mentioned. Other groups have come up with other sites.

Extended Runways

But former British Airways Concorde pilot Capt Jock Lowe has a solution which, he claims, would increase Heathrow’s capacity without additional runways and exposing more people to aircraft noise. He claims that by extending one or both of the existing runways, “available slots could be doubled». The first part of the extended runway would be used for landings and the second, divided from the first by a sterile safety area, could handle simultaneous take off.

As a first step, Lowe says Runway 27R could be extended westwards up to the M25. “This would provide the same capacity boost as the originally proposed short third runway,» he says. The next step would mean diverting the motorway to enable 27R and 27L, “to be extended to well beyond 20,000ft-long (6,096m)».

Lowe says: “The cost of this additional capacity would be a fraction of those of any of the other current suggestions and would retain and use more efficiently the huge investment that has been made at Heathrow.» Better still, perhaps, is that only a small number of homes would be adversely affected.

Whatever long-term development option is ultimately chosen, Laurie Price insists it has to be a single hub. “Anything else,» he says, “fails to recognise market reality. Airport capacity needs to be provided where airlines see the opportunity to serve passengers and shippers, not where airports, governments and developers want to locate it.» He too counsels: “Think Montreal Mirabel».

Clearly the Davies Commission is not short of advice. It has yet to publish a list of the submissions received but a spokesperson told AIR International that it expects to do so. Meanwhile, it has published a list of meetings and visits it made between September 2012 and April 2013 — two visits to Heathrow and one to Gatwick. Among individuals met were Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson (twice), senior ministers and officials, leader of the opposition Ed Milliband and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond.

Again there are echoes from the past. Like the Roskill Commission of the 1960s, the Davies Commission is setting about its task with gusto and thoroughness. It has published a number of discussion papers on relevant topics on which it is seeking comments. Like Roskill, it plans a series of public hearings both this year and next. But whether the hard work and reams of paperwork will lead to a better informed decision only time will tell.

Interim Report

Some indications of the commission’s thinking should be revealed at the end of this year when it publishes its interim report. It will share some of its thoughts on evidence received on what is needed to maintain the UK’s global hub status and it will also publish recommendations for the action required to improve the use of runway capacity over the next five years. This is likely to focus on the scope for improving procedures in the air and on the ground, and ways of using the runways at all of London’s airports, not just Heathrow.

So will there be a new gateway over the longer term? Simon Calder, respected travel editor of The Independent, thinks it’s more likely there will be incremental gains as further capacity is squeezed out of the system. Then, in the early 2020s, Gatwick will get a second runway before Heathrow gets its third, but not necessarily in the site previously earmarked for it. “That’s where my money’s going,» he says.

In the absence of the Commission’s report his guess is as good as anybody’s. But it is more likely than not that the capacity will be provided. For as Calder says: “We’re addicted to air travel and we’re not going to stop flying.

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