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Regional Britain would benefit from Heathrow closure

London needs to unload some of its air passengers on the rest of the UK. Anthony Devlin/PA

The next phase of airport development in the UK is certainly proving controversial. We have seen proposals to build entirely new airports to the east of London. New runways have been suggested at Stansted and Heathrow, while some want to consolidate regional airports into major hubs. Others have even suggested closing down the UK’s largest airport, Heathrow.

The debates over regional airports versus a centralised London-based hub are nothing new. Back in 1973 Peter Bromhead published a book called The Great White Elephant of Maplin Sands, arguing against a proposal to build a new London airport on the Essex coast.

One of Bromhead’s main arguments was that the proposal overlooked the contribution which regional airports could make to relieving the pressure on London. Forty years on and the same questions about the potential role of regional airports can be raised once more.

The pressure on London stems fundamentally from the fact that the propensity to fly (measured as the number of return air trips made annually divided by population) is very much higher in London and the surrounding South East region than it is in other parts of the country, about three times as high as the average for the UK as a whole. That in turn reflects the fact that travellers using London airports tend to enjoy much higher income levels than those flying from regional airports.

The demand for air travel is very sensitive to variations in incomes, and passenger surveys suggest that travellers’ incomes in London are approaching twice those of travellers elsewhere. But despite these factors regional airports, which often operate with surplus capacity, could still help to reduce pressure on London airports.

Some suggest that improvements in surface transport, like the proposed HS2 rail project, can do much to improve accessibility to regional airports. Birmingham Airport is often cited in this regard, since if the HS2 line is built it will benefit not only from a sharp reduction in journey times to and from London but also from a new interchange railway station right next door.

But of course, to the extent that HS2 would improve the accessibility of Birmingham from London, it would at the same time improve accessibility in the opposite direction of London from Birmingham. At present the West Midlands exports about half its air travel demand to airports in other regions, some to Manchester but most to London. If HS2 were to be constructed with a spur to Heathrow, the export of air travellers from the West Midlands might actually increase.

A great many travellers using Heathrow don’t exactly live in London, and the catchment area extends across a very large part of the country as a whole. Thus many argue that Heathrow should be seen more as a national airport rather than as one just for London.

With this in mind a proposal to close Heathrow and replace it with local airports might understandably be viewed as London-centric in the extreme. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has suggested that if either “Boris Island” in the outer Thames estuary or Norman Foster’s hub on the Isle of Grain become part of the next phase of airport expansion, Heathrow should be redeveloped for housing. Given both alternatives are sited to the east of London, further away from most of rest of the country, this plan appears to put Londoner’s interests first.

But, paradoxical though it may seem, a policy along these lines might actually benefit airports outside the London area. In truth the development of regional airports has long been inhibited by the presence of Heathrow. Often they have simply been unable to attain a “critical mass”, in terms of destinations served and service frequencies, to attract airlines operating traditional scheduled services.

Without competition from Heathrow, that might well change; airports such as Birmingham, Nottingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton and Exeter might come into their own, especially if they are able to extend runway lengths in order to cater for long-haul services flown in one hop to China or the west coast of North America.

There is another, rather crucial, aspect to this. Many travellers currently flying from Heathrow live in some of the wealthiest parts of the country: the Thames Valley (including, of course, Boris’ former Parliamentary seat Henley), the Chilterns, Oxfordshire Gloucestershire and the West Country.

These travellers are often frequent flyers and often pay premium fares for first or business class service; airlines often earn disproportionate amounts of their operating profits through carrying such passengers. The importance of such traffic is well illustrated by comparing the revenue yields of, for example, North Atlantic flights operated from Heathrow and Gatwick. The average revenue per passenger from Heathrow is something like £50 more than that from Gatwick.

If Heathrow were to close, what might the wealthy travellers do? Cross the metropolis to Boris Island or the Isle of Grain? Or use a regional airport instead?

Boris’ suggestion that Heathrow could be closed is not motivated entirely by the chance to redevelop the area for housing. There are major concerns over the reluctance of airlines and their passengers to move to the east of the capital.

He might be mindful of what happened in Washington D.C. when Washington Dulles, a brand new out-of-town airport, was opened in 1962 to relieve pressure on the busy downtown airport at Washington National. Dulles was built on what was at the time considered a grandiose scale but, for a great many years, it remained grossly underutilised because little traffic could be persuaded to divert from National. After five decades of air traffic growth, Dulles is now fully utilised and it is no longer regarded as a white elephant.

If Heathrow were to remain open, it is Boris Island or the Isle of Grain that may become the white elephants of the future.

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