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11 August 2022

Opinion from Adrian Leopard & Co

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Who does Heathrow really belong to? CO2 lobbyists back on the job!
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Who does Heathrow really belong to? CO2 lobbyists back on the job!

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As we move towards relaxing the restrictions, parties begin to think of the future.

Whether you like it or not, Covid-19 is being seen by climate change lobbyists as their “opportunity”. In a previous post, I looked at the effect several factors might play in deciding whether Heathrow Airport (LHR) would get its controversial third runway in the foreseeable future.

The term ‘third runway’ is used in a manner to suggest that LHR has only ever had its present two runways. In fact when it opened in 1946, the airport actually boasted no less than six runways arranged in a ‘Star of David’ pattern surrounding what was to become the central terminal area, but these were systematically decommissioned over the ensuing years, as airliners became less crosswind critical, to make way for new terminal, pier and apron areas to be constructed. One of these, runway 05/23, survived until it was finally decommissioned as recently as 2003. Had Heathrow’s third runway been retained, it could certainly have eased the congestion of the other two, much longer strips (27L/09R & 27R/09L), but there would have been a limit to what it could achieve, because it was not parallel to either of the other two runways, making simultaneous use a challenge, but not an impossibility.

The original third runway now lies beneath piers and aircraft stands associated with the new Terminal 2.

The original airport plans are interesting for another reason. They envisaged a further three, shorter, runways, arranged in a star, to the north of the main development, making a total of nine. One of these, that running east-west, is in the exact position now earmarked for the eastern end of the planned new third runway.  One of the reasons for the abandonment of this part of the Heathrow project was that, back in the day, it was extremely unpopular with local residents. Not a lot has changed!

Fast forward to 2020. Put aside Covid-19, and just for a moment ignore that which can no longer be ignored, namely emissions. What are the perceived benefits of restoring LHR to a three runway airport? No single stakeholder can be truly objective as they none of them share the same position.

To the airport’s current owner/operator, a conglomerate headed by a Spanish infrastructure business, Ferrovial S.A., LHR is a valuable asset, from which their shareholders demand the best possible return. It is a stand alone asset, and there is no coordinated strategic planning with the owners of London’s other airports regarding the most efficient use of the capital’s runway resources, which might of course be to the wider benefit. The desire of Heathrow’s owners is simple: to get as many passengers as possible through its terminals to maximise profits. This is achieved by handling as many runway movements as can be accommodated, by as large an aircraft as the respective routes will support. A third runway will allow them to do more of the same. It’s as simple as that.

However, there is another argument. Surely LHR is a national asset, and not simply an asset of London, nor Ferrovial et al. Perhaps further development should be of benefit to all the Kingdom’s cities and regions, not just the capital. Many businesses outside London are alarmed by the number of domestic air services lost, those that previously gave access to the UK’s main (by far) international air hub.

An overseas business traveller investing in the provinces wants to be able to fly there from the major airport that he or she has just arrived at. Surface transfer to a different London airport can be (perhaps ‘usually is’ would be a better term) a significantly unpleasant experience best not repeated and so slow! They will be attracted to those regional destinations that that can be accessed by connecting flights from the same airport. The problem is, where Heathrow is concerned, there’s no longer that many!

In fact, it is a sad reflection of the current situation that that KLM, Royal Dutch Airlines, part of the Air France KLM Group, serve more British regional airports than British Airways does. Of course, KLM do not serve Heathrow from those regions, but Amsterdam Schiphol (which by the way, has six runways). All well and good, except this route to a UK regional airport is not the most obvious to someone from half way around the world! And would we not prefer that business, and thus those jobs, go to Britain’s airlines, serving Britain’s major airport, not one from the continent? In fact LHR are shooting themselves in the foot.

How has this come about? To have access to LHR (and all busy airports) an airline needs a slot. These are now (Covid aside) in such short supply as LHR’s runways reach full capacity, that they have become, despite originally being issued gratis, a commodity traded by large airlines with millions of pounds changing hands. LHR’s slots are dominated by British Airways and the airport is often referred to as “Fortress Heathrow”, because it is so difficult for smaller airlines that serve the regions to obtain these slots, and even if they can, to then afford them. BA itself has pulled off some of its regional routes, preferring to use those slots for more lucrative services, often destinations already served, by adding yet more rotations. Indeed, BA has been known to buy a whole airline, to transfer its valuable slots to their own services (e.g. BMI), and the recent demise of regional carrier flyBe brought about an oh so familiar pattern. flyBe’s portfolio of LHR slots have all gone to BA, making the dominant carrier even more dominant. They certainly won’t be flying to regional airports with them!

The privatisation of Heathrow by the Thatcher government under the Airports Act 1983, did not in isolation create the present inequitable situation – indeed this and the subsequent break up of Ferrovial’s London airport interests per the Competition Commissioner’s ruling (Gatwick in 2009 and Stansted in 2013) has introduced a major investment of capital that would not have otherwise been forthcoming. The mistake, I submit, was perhaps allowing unfettered, market led operation of especially LHR, rather than making ownership subject to a degree in strategic input from the respective government of the day.

Paris is worthy of comparison. Their two major airports (plus a host of minor ones) have the same operator, Groupe ADP, a commercial, for profit undertaking of which the Republic owns just over 50%, allowing a coordinated central policy with regard to the efficient use of the city’s airports, for the benefit of France as a whole, but also allowing a degree of private investment. CDG is Europe’s second busiest gateway after LHR, and has four runways. The original two parallel runways have been joined by two further, also parallel, and somewhat shorter facilities, which domestic and European flights can use. There is also a dedicated domestic terminal, and the regions of France are extremely well served both by the flag carrier Air France, and its domestic arm, ‘HOP!’.

So this brings us back to the original plans drawn up by the founding fathers of Heathrow Airport in the mid 1940s. They envisaged shorter runways to the north of the Bath Road, to handle smaller aircraft and that plan would still work today.

Perhaps we should give new thought to this. A shorter parallel runway, would involve less expense, and would also be significantly better for the local environment as less demolition would be required. It could be used to reintroduce many regional, domestic schedules, which would be ring-fenced by government as a condition of allowing its construction. It could also be used by aircraft up to A320/B737 size from Continental Europe. This would free-up a significant number of slots on the longer runways for heavier jets serving longer haul destinations, allowing growth in Heathrow Airport Ltd’s business, that of BA, and hopefully some other UK based operators.

Could we once again see places within our land and its dependencies like Blackpool, Carlisle, Dundee, Guernsey, Humberside, Isle of Man, Newquay, Norwich, Tees-Side, Liverpool and Plymouth* have their routes – some would argue lifeline routes – to the nation’s busiest and most important airport restored?

Such a way forward is not ideal; not for Ferrovial and its partners. Not for BA. Possibly not for the climate change activists. And certainly not for those locally opposed to any development. But the country as a whole gets something out of it, and it thereby represents that commodity which the British do so very well: good old fashioned compromise.

* Unfortunately Plymouth Airport has closed. Before Covid there were moves to re-open it but the future now is entirely uncertain.

Capt J W H Quayle 07-05-20

The views expressed above are the views of the author and Adrian Leopard & Co accept no responsibility for them.

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