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Aviation strategy: High time to give airport capacity some uplift

The nation’s air transport industry - and many residents of the southeast of England - will be holding their breath for the next 12 months in anticipation of the Davies Commission’s first report into the UK airport capacity.


Taking to the sky: Hub airports allow people to get off one plane and transfer quickly onto another

The government-appointed commission, chaired by former Financial Services Authority head Sir Howard Davies, has been given until 2015 to provide firm recommendations on how the UK can maintain its leading position in air transport and as an aviation hub. But in the meantime it has promised an interim report, to be published by the end of 2013, to narrow down the options and recommend immediate actions to improve the use of existing runway capacity.

The airports debate was reignited this year when the government announced the formation of the commission, which puts the possibility of extra capacity at Heathrow back on the table as one of the options. “At the last election political parties took up opposing positions over the future of our national hub. I can understand why, but it set the UK back 10 years and prejudiced the UK’s leading position in global air transport as a result,” says Mott MacDonald aviation director Chris Chalk.

Chalk, who is also a member of the ICE transport panel and deputy chair of the British Aviation Group, says the UK is losing out to other European airports as an international hub because of lack of runway capacity, which has knock-on effects on the network and frequency of air services and the UK’s ability to trade effectively with other countries in an increasingly globalised economy - especially in developing and growth markets such as the BRIC nations.

The number of additional seats that are available from Charles de Gaulle to China compared to Heathrow

The number of people employed at Heathrow Airport

The number of routes operated by KLM from the UK to Amsterdam Schiphol

Heathrow, the busiest twin runway airport in the world, is already running at maximum capacity and UK air traffic controllers and airport operators have become world leaders at squeezing the most out of the limited space available. However airlines are increasingly having to fly out of rival locations, like Frankfurt, Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle. These hubs have more runway capacity and they can fly aircraft to the destinations required at a frequency the market demands.

“Running to the limit of capacity gives problems with resilience as there is no ability to deal with delay or disruption,” says Chalk. “Delays cost airlines money and damage their reputation for service delivery. That is why some low cost carriers prefer to operate from less congested airports.

“This is where other UK airports play a role, meeting the needs of different market segments. But multiple airports cannot substitute for adequate capacity at the hub,” he adds.

The new generation of larger aircraft - like the 550-seat Airbus A380 - enable more people to be accommodated per aircraft movement, but, says Chalk, this is not the answer to the UK’s capacity problem. “The point of a hub is that people can get off one plane and transfer quickly onto another that is going to the place they want to go, whilst giving the airlines market density and economy of scale to maintain their networks and frequency.

“Charles de Gaulle has four times more flights connecting within a two hour window than Heathrow does, because its runways are not at full capacity - so they can operate in “waves” of arriving and departing flights,” he adds.

“The priorities for business people are frequency, schedule flexibility, and convenience.” says Chalk. “They want a choice of flights.

“Where airports reach their capacity limit, airlines will look to fly into and out of expanding competitors, catering to high yield, high traffic volume business routes. Juggling precious runway slots between international business routes and regional operations, Heathrow is connected to 40% fewer destinations compared to competing EU hubs. The fewer routes you have, the less you’re able to hub.”

Chalk is particularly concerned that the gridlock of capacity blocks airlines from starting new direct routes into developing countries, for example, mainland China. Charles de Gaulle has 1M more seats servicing mainland China every year than Heathrow, and Chalk says it is no surprise that Chinese aerospace firm Comac chose to set up its European headquarters just outside Paris rather than in the UK.

“Where airports reach their capacity limit, airlines will look to fly into and out of expanding competitors”

Chris Chalk, Mott MacDonald

Chalk says the French have “played the long game” by steadily increasing capacity at Charles de Gaulle to offer the flexibility the airlines need. And once they have the routes that suit the business community, they can also attract tourists, as evidenced by reports this year of a significant boom in high-spending Chinese tourists flocking to the French capital - not helped by the UK’s Air Passenger Duty and visa fees.

He adds that the lack of capacity at Heathrow also means UK regional airports are unwittingly helping other European hub airports, airlines and consequentially economies to grow at the expense of the UK. Airline KLM, for example, has 23 routes from UK airports to Amsterdam Schiphol, so it can feed in passengers and transfer them onto long haul flights. By contrast Heathrow has only six routes to UK regional airports, compared with over 20 three decades ago.

Chalk firmly believes the UK needs a vibrant, competitive hub airport, and says there is a simple “binary choice”: expanding Heathrow or closing it down and building a new hub elsewhere. He acknowledges it is not an easy decision, and it will require political support - which would seem to be why the Davies Commission will not be making a firm recommendation until after the next election.

“The solution has got to work technically - and the UK has got the skills to make that happen; and it has got to be affordable - both to finance it and for the airlines to afford and be willing to use it - which could well be a challenge for many options,” says Chalk. “But the big issues are societal - social and environmental - and a lot of people don’t realise how difficult that will be.”

Heathrow is currently the UK’s largest employment site, with more than 100,000 people employed there directly or indirectly, so a decision to close it down and build a new hub elsewhere would have massive social consequences - just as a decision to expand it would have environmental consequences.

Chalk acknowledges that, politically, the easiest short term option is to “do nothing”, but says this is “not an option”, as the economic imperative for a national hub airport is critical to the economy and employment. Waiting another three years for a recommendation from the Davies Commission is not ideal, he says, and we do need to look at interim capacity options. But it will be worth the wait if it results in firm cross-party consensus and a commitment from whatever government is in power by then.




Lift off: Clear economic benefits

While the mature European airports compete for hub status, new airports are springing up or being expanded in growth markets around the world.

According to Chalk both Dubai and Hong Kong airports will eclipse Heathrow as the busiest in the world within the next two years, and Delhi has recently added a new terminal that is larger than Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and was built more quickly. Other growth markets include the Middle East, Turkey and Latin America.

In Ecuador a new $700M (£460M) international airport has just been built in the capital Quito where Mott MacDonald has acted as lenders’ engineer. The new airport will replace the city’s existing Mariscal Sucre International Airport, which has no spare capacity and cannot be expanded due to its inner city location and altitude. It has been developed as a concession, and has a 4.1km runway, making it the longest in Latin America, enabling direct access to Europe and North America.

Mott MacDonald aviation director Chris Chalk says: “This project has produced massive socio-economic benefits to the local community. The airport has so far generated more than US$1bn of economic activity and is expected to inject over US$200M annually into the city’s economy.”

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