The UK Airport Capacity Crunch: The Airports Commission Interim Report

Earlier this year I met CEO of Heathrow Airport, Colin Matthews. I subsequently interviewed him at this year’s World Travel Market.

  He has plenty on his agenda.  The government established the independent Airports Commission chaired by Sir Howard Davies to look at the tricky question of what should be done about the capacity bottle neck at London’s principal airports. Heathrow, the UK’s only hub airport is, in effect, full.

After a frantic period of lobbying from different airports, putting forward their plans for new hub capacity, the Airport Commission has delivered their interim report. No final recommendations will be made until after the next election, well into 2015.

A very long wait for such an important issue yet one shrouded in toxic political debate.

Hub airports are key strategic assets;  there are only a handful around the world. They offer multiple itinerary choices to customers by facilitating connections between multiple short and long haul flights.

Colin Matthews is optimistic that the Commission will reach, what he describes as “good conclusions.” Of course it’s the politicians who have to implement them.

The UK has many great airports and several are making their claims to be the future hub. It’s certainly a significant challenge for the Commission to square off the competing claims.

The reality is, with only two home grown hub carriers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, the UK can only sustain one hub.  Heathrow has made its case for expansion and Matthews highlights some of the issues. Could we have a multi hub system? Some cite New York as an example but only Newark functions as a hub, JFK is a point to point airport. The airport system there has less long haul flights than Frankfurt, less short haul than Atlanta.. Could an Alliance group move to another airport? Even Star gets quite a lot of feed from BA at Heathrow and alliances are very fluid entities with tough regulatory limitations preventing schedule and pricing cooperation.

The debate is often framed as if Government can dictate where airlines fly (this has happened in the past), but ultimately it’s the airlines who will decide where to fly. Faced with high fuel prices & in many cases, difficult market conditions airlines have to put their aircraft where the money is.  Aircraft are truly mobile assets, they don’t have to come to the UK. If the capacity isn’t available at the right UK hub airport they will go elsewhere in the world.

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