The plaintive wails of BAA about the need for expansion at Heathrow are growing in intensity. This is understandable; Heathrow is a commercial airport, run for the profit of its Spanish owners and a bigger airport will make more money. In its astute lobbying, BAA paints a sad picture of an unusually constrained airport holding back the trading efforts of UK business because of a crying lack of capacity and inadequate connections to the growing countries of the east. These stories have gained currency in the press and elsewhere. They are wholly wrong. There may possibly be an argument for a new London airport, sited to minimise the nuisance caused by noise, but there is no compelling reason for Heathrow expansion.
1, Heathrow is predominantly a leisure airport, not one mostly serving business needs.
The 2011 passenger survey shows that over two thirds (69%) of passengers are travelling for leisure. 31% are on business.
Source: http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/81/2011CAAPaxSurveyReport.pdf (Table 2.1)
2, Business travellers are more likely to be going to an internal company meeting that visiting customers. Many of those using Heathrow could easily use other forms of communication.
The survey suggests that 10% of all Heathrow travellers are on their way to a company event. Fewer – 9% of passengers – are travelling to see customers.
Source: http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/81/2011CAAPaxSurveyReport.pdf (Table 18.4)
3, Business travel from Heathrow is falling, not increasing.
The number of business passengers using Heathrow (including transfer passengers) was 24.3 million in 2000 but 21.5 million in 2011. The number of business travellers terminating at Heathrow was 18.5 million in 2000, falling to 15.1m in 2011.
Sources: http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/81/2000CAAPaxSurveyReport.pdf (Table 4 and Table 5) and http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/81/2011CAAPaxSurveyReport.pdf (Table 2.4 and Table 3.4)
4, Almost all users are happy with their experience at Heathrow. The airport infrastructure delivers user satisfaction.
In a 2012 survey, 87% had a positive view of their airport experience. Only 3% had negative views. (These numbers are very similar to Gatwick and slightly less good than Stansted). 74% had no criticisms at all of Heathrow. 45% could think of no improvements that might be useful. The average perceived queuing time for inbound passengers was 11 minutes, far less than passengers considered a reasonable maximum.
5, The airport is not operating at capacity.
Heathrow remains very busy, but the total number of flights in the year to June 2013 was down 2% from the previous year. This fall was slightly sharper than UK airports as a whole.
6, Delays at Heathrow are only slightly worse than at other airports. Its terminals and its runways are coping with the demands placed upon them.
The most recent CAA data shows that 75% of flights departing from or arriving at Heathrow were punctual (defined as operating to within 15 minutes of the scheduled time) for the year to March 2013. The average for ten largest UK airports was 79%. The average delay was 14.0 minutes at Heathrow compared to 12.6 minutes for all the airports. Heathrow’s average delay was less than Gatwick or Manchester.
Source: http://www.caa.co.uk/docs/80/AviationTrends_Q1_2013.pdf (Section 7)
7, The number of cities connected to Heathrow by long haul flights is greater than any other European hub airport. The total number of seats on these flights is far more than Heathrow’s nearest competitor. The airlines using Heathrow are becoming more oriented towards shorter flights, not travel to the fast growing countries of the east and south.
A 2011 study commissioned by BAA, the owners of Heathrow, said that Heathrow had daily long haul connections to 82 cities around the world. Its nearest competitor, Paris Charles de Gaulle, had 78. But the number of seats on these flights was 25.2m in the case of Heathrow and 14.0m for Paris CDG.
Importantly, the airlines using Heathrow have chosen to move away from long haul flights, cutting seats by about 10% since 2005 while increasing short haul capacity by similar percentage. The air travel market appears to be indicating that it has no shortage of long haul flights from Heathrow.
Many of us oppose Heathrow expansion because of its likely impact on carbon emissions. But we can also be confident that there is no current financial case for a third runway, except in the eyes of the airport’s owners and its multitude of lobbyists.