If you were to pick the least friendly government when it came to aviation, you’d probably settle on the United Kingdom. On the one hand, it has absurdly high taxes, but on the other hand it refuses to spend that tax revenue on actually improving the infrastructure needed to support air travel growth. It sees air travel as a sin despite so many others recognizing the tremendous value. The end result is complete and total inaction, and that leaves just about everyone frustrated.
The problem is really centered on London, a global capital that carries the lion’s share of international traffic in the country. When it comes to airports, London is like New York but with higher taxes for travelers. Unlike New York, London really has only one major intercontinental gateway, and that’s Heathrow. But there are 5 other actual airports and 1 insane proposal for an airport that also serve London, or at least parts of it. Now a fight is brewing since only one will be allowed to grow in the next 15 years.
A silly amount of money has been poured into Heathrow, located west of London, over the last few years. First it was BA’s new Terminal 5 and there was a renovation of Terminal 3. Then it was the new Queen’s Terminal which will be the new home of the Star Alliance starting in June. But all this shuffling is simply making the experience better for travelers and not increasing the number of airplanes that can come and go. There are still just two lonely runways at Heathrow and the airport is effectively full.
London’s second airport is Gatwick, located to the south of town. Gatwick was a familiar spot for many an American heading to London before “open skies” took effect. It used to be that the only American carriers that could use Heathrow were Pan Am and TWA (which sold their rights to United and American). Everyone else had to use Gatwick. Once the skies opened, airlines fled to Heathrow, the preferred gateway for the high dollar business traveler. US Airways pulled the last flight from the US to Gatwick on a US-based carrier last year. You’ll still see a couple between Gatwick and Florida on BA and Virgin, but that’s because Gatwick is a bigger leisure airport. Those flights bring Brits down to see Mickey Mouse.
Gatwick has had a transformation of sorts in recent years. Under new, independent management, it has successfully grown to be a low cost carrier hub. In fact, easyJet has its largest base at Gatwick and controls nearly half the traffic there. Its recent agreement to buy Flybe’s slots makes it even stronger. But with just one runway in use (the busiest single runway airport in the world), Gatwick is also bursting at the seems. It just signed a deal to grow at Gatwick, but opportunities are limited because of runway constraints.
While there are other airports in the region, they all serve their niches and nothing more. London City is a bustling short haul airport with a very tiny runway that serves as the financial sector’s choice for travel throughout Europe due to its proximity to Canary Wharf. Stansted is the other big low cost airport in town sitting on the north side. Both are near capacity in their own right. Luton and even little Southend serve the people primarily in their immediate area and haven’t received much traction. So those two aren’t really candidates for serving London’s growing needs.
With the biggest airports hamstrung, what’s next? You would think there would be some efforts to add runways and you’d be right. But the process moves at a snail’s pace.
There have been many proposals for new capacity. My favorite to mock is so-called Boris Island, named after the biggest supporter of the plan, London Mayor Boris Johnson. He wants to knock down Heathrow and redevelopment it as housing, shopping etc. Then he wants to build a brand new airport in the Thames Estuary, WAY east of London. The cost? Only a couple hundred BILLION dollars.
The UK Airports Commission has said that plan is not on its shortlist, but it still hasn’t ruled it out completely. Hopefully it will kill this plan, just as it did the plan to add runways at Stansted.
The commission does, however, see a need for a new runway… by the year 2030. Geez. Oh, and there might be a need for another one by 2050. It’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to do anything.
The commission likes either a new runway at Heathrow or at Gatwick for this round. That has the two airports fighting each other.
Gatwick says that Heathrow is too expensive for low cost carriers, and since low cost carriers are the fastest growing players in the industry, Gatwick should get the runway to serve them. But easyJet threw them under the bus by saying the airline would look at flying at Heathrow if there was capacity. Of course, as low cost carriers like easyJet grow to serve more business travelers, that’s a natural thing to consider.
But Heathrow’s argument is that it is the world gateway and it needs more runways to serve the world’s business travelers. Many agree with that sentiment, including Delta’s SVP of Europe, Middle East, and Africa Perry Cantarutti. In a hilariously ironic quote, Perry says that “Cities that offer two hub airports tend to be a limiter for airlines and for passengers. It’s not a viable alternative.”
Hmm, he might want to talk to his colleague Gail Grimmett who runs Delta’s split New York hub at JFK and LaGuardia. That seems to be viable, if not ideal. But the point is still valid. Adding a runway at Heathrow is likely more beneficial than adding one at Gatwick to the business traveler. But why the heck do we have to choose?
Both airports should have a new runway and it should come much sooner than 2030. There is demand and it’s not being met. Thank you, UK, for showing the world how not to handle aviation policy.