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Boris Island is a non-starter at £50bn+, but is he wrong about hubs too?

The whole argument about another airport runway for London is based on the idea that the future lies with big national hubs, and of course Heathrow argues that on that basis the extra airport runway should obviously be provided for Heathrow. They argue that 70% of all long-haul services to and from Britain go to Heathrow, and that is so important for airlines that they are prepared to pay £25-30m for take-off and landing slots there.

Also the government is already greatly helping Heathrow with important new transport links: Crossrail will have a stop there, and a spur may be built from the mooted HS2 to link up with Heathrow. But is the reinforcement of the existing hub inevitable, and indeed is it necessary or desirable?

A number of recent trends undermine the almost automatic assumption about hub airports in the current debate. The rise of low-cost airlines, which tend to operate out of cheaper airports, are increasingly challenging the short-haul ‘full-service’ model. Cheap upstarts are beginning to upstage the EU and US legacy carriers that control the hubs. Thus by last year three of these low-cost airlines – easyJet, Ryanair and Flybe – had increased their shar of passengers entering or leaving Britain to 35% compared with just 10% in 2000.

Moreover business travellers accounted for 20% of all passengers using Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham, while those going through Heathrow (which has no low-cost carriers) fell from 37% in 2002 to just 30% now. Part of the reason for this is that more people are ‘self-connecting’ rather than booking a transfer flight. All this reduces the need for a formal hub set-up.

Another feature which weakens the case for hubs is the development of new aeroplanes like the Airbus A350 and Boeing’s 787. They make it possible to fly fewer passengers farther and thus potentially bypass hubs. Cheap airlines may well use them to get a foothold on long-haul business. Indeed it could be argued that that the liberalisation of the low-cost European aviation market could be repeated globally.

Then there are the political arguments which play down the significance of hubs. Several constituencies under the Heathrow flight path are marginals, and any party that backs a third runway could lose them which may explain why, despite the intense pressure from the powerful Heathrow lobby, Labour once supported a third runway, but now does not, while the Tories were against it, but are now vacillating. Only Boris remains firmly for a new mega-hub, which may say more about his incorrigible self-promotion than about serious commercial logic.

One Comment

  1. swatantra says:

    Regional Airports are the future. Disperse them , and develop them and iimprove InterCity Rail and Road Links.

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