Myths about Heathrow expansion

The proponents of a third runway at Heathrow-  and the many others who think that airport expansion is necessary to boost the economy - have convinced many of the reasonableness of their arguments. But do modern economies need more aviation to boost business? Do the arguments of the expansionists have any validity whatsoever? A quick comparison of 2000 and 2011 traffic levels at Heathrow shows that the advocates are quite simply wrong in many of their assertions. BAA lobbyists have invented reasons for expansion that have no factual basis. Using Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) data, this article examines their arguments in turn.[1] 1, ‘Heathrow is predominantly a business airport’ and therefore economic growth depends on its expansion.

Most of the airport’s traffic comes from passengers travelling on leisure purposes. Only 31% of the people arriving at the airport are there on business. (And ‘business’ is widely defined to include such travellers as au pairs, students and armed forces personnel).

2, ‘Business travel is growing’ and Heathrow’s capacity shortages are constraining business.

As George Monbiot recently pointed out, business air travel is consistently shrinking in the UK. Heathrow is no exception to this trend. In the period between 2000 and 2011, businesspeople’s travel numbers fell by 12%, compared to a rise of 17% in Heathrow leisure travellers.

The percentage of all Heathrow passengers travelling for business purposes fell from 38% in 2000 to 31% in 2011. Heathrow is rapidly losing reliance on business travellers.

3, ‘Heathrow is principally a hub airport’

There is a grain of truth of this assertion. More passengers do use Heathrow in order to take connecting flights than any other major UK airport. And the percentage of all travellers taking connecting flights from Heathrow is tending to rise. But the percentage of connecting passengers is still only 34%, up from 30% in 2000.

(The number of terminating passengers, as opposed to those connecting to another flight has barely changed in the last ten years. The sense that Heathrow is full to overflowing entirely arises because of the increase in connecting traffic.)

4, ‘The connecting passengers are business customers – and we need to encourage their travel through London’.

This is untrue. 72% of connecting passengers in 2011 were leisure passengers, up from 70% in 2000. Today’s number is marginally higher than the 69% of all travellers who were flying for leisure through Heathrow. The growth in connecting passengers is driven by non-business travel.

In 2011 almost a quarter of Heathrow’s total passenger traffic arose from leisure travellers switching planes. In terms of absolute numbers, over 60% of the increase in passenger numbers at Heathrow between 2000 and 2011 arose from connecting leisure passengers.

Perhaps like many others, I’ve never understood why the UK should inflict aircraft noise on millions of people in order to enable international travellers with no connection to the UK to switch from one flight to another. If travellers want to connect at Schipol or Frankfurt rather than Heathrow that seems perfectly OK to me.  The argument that the UK’s status in the world depends on the possession of the biggest airport hub seems lamentably weak.

5, ‘UK business need Heathrow to expand, otherwise we will lose out to foreign companies’

The number of UK nationals using Heathrow for business purposes fell by 19% in the period. Foreign business travel numbers only declined by 3%. Part of the decline in UK numbers probably arises because of the fall in intra-UK flights over the last eleven years as national links have moved to other London airports. But the number of international business travellers from the UK also fell much faster than the number of foreign businesspeople using Heathrow.

6,’ Heathrow has flights to fewer destinations in China and other rapidly industrialising countries’ and so it needs more capacity

I tried to deal with this argument in an earlier article on this blog. In summary, Heathrow doesn’t connect to as many cities in China as some other airports. This is because the preponderance of Heathrow flights go to Hong Kong, from which UK travellers can connect to other cities in China. The number of flights from Heathrow to China is actually far greater than the numbers from other main European airports. The Heathrow/Hong Kong link dwarves all other European connections, with almost three times as many flights as any other airport pair.


[1] The numbers in this piece are derived from the CAA’s 2000 and 2011 Passenger Survey Reports, to be found at I used 2000 to avoid the impact of the 9/11 suspension of flights, and large consequent drop in air travel, in 2001.