Air UK: global hub or European branch line?

17/12/2013 Written by: Philip Bates

Does the UK need a new large hub airport? Or can we achieve an acceptable level of global connectivity by increasing the number of runways spread across existing UK locations such as Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and some of the regional airports, in particular Birmingham. 

Let's look at the issue the Davis commission continues to grapple with, should we be considering a new large hub airport? All our politicians seem to agree London is a major attraction for people around the world, both for business and pleasure. They also seem to accept the need for some incremental runway capacity. So everyone is in agreement; we do need more capacity. It’s just a question of how we connect to the second tier mega cities that are growing across the world especially in countries like China, Brazil and India, and the top tier cities in smaller developing countries, such as Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In these terms the argument for a large single hub airport is fairly simply. If you want flights to lots of smaller destinations (from the UK) then these flights must be supplemented by passengers who have to transit through London to reach their final destinations. These additional transit passengers, while they can be relatively small in numbers  are often needed to make a marginal route viable for an airline. 

The question that no one appears to want to answer is how do the major social, environmental  and economic costs of a new UK aviation hub, and the consequent direct flights, compare with the often minor inconvenience of having to make a stopover when flying from the UK to a second tier city?  

This is where the branch line analogy comes to the fore. Those who support a new hub airport say that without it the UK would end up an aviation branch line; always needing to travel to another country to get the transfer we need to take us to our final destination. Would that be so bad? 

I live on a railway branch line; there are a few direct peak hour trains into London a day (the first tier destination) but the rest of the day I have to take a frequent local service to the mainline station (second tier destinations), then connect to London. It’s not the most direct option but at least I have one.  Of course, it would be nice to have more direct trains to London, but I have to balance this so called lack of connectivity against the benefit of living in a green and pleasant land still within a short hop of London.

And will the need for capacity still continue to grow given the opportunities for virtual contact? We are in the midst of a digital revolution. Most of us have only had extensive access to the internet for the last decade. Do we really think we have seen all the digital revolution has to offer? How can we truly know the impact of demand for travel and the effect of technology on capacity so soon into the new digital era? 

We have to ask ourselves as a country what is important (even if the Government seems unwilling to ask), and make sensible decisions about costs versus benefits. A new hub airport would give better city to city flight options for people in the UK.  But, at what cost? A new hub would be far more expensive than expanding existing airports incrementally and, despite financial offers from China, UK taxpayers will still ultimately have to pay for it. In addition, a new hub airport will not be environmentally neutral, it will just have different impacts to the existing south east airports. Closing Heathrow (and this is what a new hub airport would require) would have significant social impacts across west London, cities and towns along the M4 corridor and the western sector of the South East for at least a generation. 

Perhaps most importantly, while a new aviation hub might theoretically provide good flights to lots of cities, we will be competing with new hubs like Dubai and Istanbul, as well as existing hubs like Amsterdam’s Schiphol, most of which have better existing infrastructure and, in many cases, are fundamentally in better locations. After all, if you were choosing a location for a hub airport you wouldn’t choose the northern periphery of the European Union…

If we go with incremental expansion we might, on occasion, have to include an interchange in our flight but are we really suggesting this is either a major handicap to UK business or a major reason why people wouldn’t continue to come to London for business or pleasure? Meanwhile, there will be more public money to invest in more pressing needs and at least we’ll be aware of the downsides of our existing airports and can work to mitigate them.  I live on a branch line and hey, on balance, it’s the good life! 

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