It’s not ‘one hub or none’

Plans for runway expansion and new developments are predicated on a ‘one hub or none theory’, which might not be entirely accurate, Jack Peat argues.

by Jack Peat

By Jack Peat

There are between 28 to 30 flights from London to New York each day. By that, I mean 28 to 30 flights leaving from one of five London airports and arriving in either JFK or Newark. Based on this route and many others, the notion of having one hub or none seems absurd.

The House of Commons’ Transport Committee has today put forward proposals rubbishing the idea of a Thames Estuary airport and promoting further expansion at Heathrow. Plans for a new hub on the artificial islands located off the Isle of Sheppey, coined “Boris Island”, were dismissed as costly and environmentally damaging, dealing a big blow to the Mayor of London, who has doubtless spent large sums of tax money developing the nonsensical idea.

Committee chair Louise Ellman said a third runway at Heathrow is necessary, but also suggested that a four-runway proposal may have merit, especially if expanding to locate two new runways westwards from the current site could curb the noise experienced by people affected under the flight path. As the Economist recently documented, this would mean thousands of houses would be avoided on the approach, although some new victims of aircraft noise might be impacted, such as a certain someone at Windsor Castle. Sorry maaam!

Need for a fix

The Department of Transport predicts that 320 million passengers will want to use Britain’s airports by 2030, 100 million more than passed through last year. While there is still plenty of capacity at regional locations, the South East will take the lion’s share of that traffic, and capacity in the capital is growing thin.

Boris hit back at the Committees findings saying that a third runway at Heathrow would become obsolete before building is completed, and to an extent, he is right. Even if a third runway increased Heathrow’s capacity by around 50 per cent, growing demand would significantly have outrun the increase in supply of landing slots. Plans for a fourth runway will also have an expiry date, but the thought of moving operations away from Heathrow is unthinkable, and the site still has huge potential as the UK’s major hub.

Multi-hub model

One solution which has vast potential and will cause little disruption is a ‘multi-hub model’.  With six airports (including London Southend) and growing, like the capital’s train network, London could be served from north, south, west and east, rather than only from the west (Heathrow) or the east (Thames Estuary). This would cause minimum disruption – there would be no need to wheel a hub airport (and its supporting regional economy) across town – and isn’t likely to impact the appeal of the city as a tourist or hub destination, if the proper infrastructure is put in place.

The London to New York route is a fine example of how this could work. Regular flights to the Big Apple operate out of Heathrow and Gatwick, and City Airport has also managed to attract business customers by operating the route with quick access to the city at either end. Stansted and Luton could also take leisure routes to New York, easing traffic elsewhere.

Airlines will be pleased by this too. Checking flights from London on AirBerlin’s site I was confronted with the message: “AirBerlin and NIKI are flying to different airports in London – Stansted, Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton,” highlighting that operators are more than happy to spread their fleet. Our very own British Airways operates regular flights from three London airports, and new airlines seem more than happy to look elsewhere.

Haneda and Narita, Heathrow and Gatwicka

Tokyo’s Heneda and Narita airports offer a good example of a multi-hub solution in action. Haneda mostly handles passengers travelling to or from Japanese cities, whereas Narita is more of a global connecting hub for passengers travelling between Asia and America. A new international terminal has opened up the capacity at Heneda, allowing the city’s capacity to rise by operating a joint hub system.

London already specialises in a similar way. Heathrow acts as the hub with Gatwick supporting overflow. City Airport handles business travelers and Luton, Stansted and Southend take care of leisure travelers getting away on chartered flights or on low cost airlines. Each airport connects with the city in half an hour and they also have room to build. Promoting Gatwick and Heathrow as our hub airports while utilising capacity at other fringe airports therefore looks like a promising solution, rubbishing the notion that it’s one hub or none.

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