Business Travel: Regional airports still waiting in the wings

Click to follow
With Heathrow and Gatwick at full capacity, Britain has plenty of less crowded alternative airports. But, writes Neil Taylor, business travellers are failing to take advantage of their local facilities.

"Born Again". Most Bristolians will have confronted this slogan which took up the prime city-centre poster sites abandoned by the political parties after the election in May.

Few can have guessed which product felt it needed messianic zeal to promote itself - it was in fact what used to be the local airport. However the message was now very different. Gone was Lulsgate and here was Bristol International, following Rhoose and Turnhouse now similarly metamorphosed into Cardiff and Edinburgh. A recent candid press release from Bristol Airport shows the battle it still has to fight with Heathrow and Gatwick. Although there are five flights a day from Bristol to Amsterdam, in 1996 74,000 people from the South West still chose to fly from Heathrow.

Regional airports now have to wage several battles simultaneously.

Firstly figures such as these show how they have to fight local ignorance about the scheduled services they offer. Secondly they have to fight each other to encourage new airlines to start an international service. Once airlines make such a move, few result in failure. Air UK/KLM and Aer Lingus pioneered such routes, Air France, Sabena and SAS have followed. Manchester has also been successful in pioneering long-haul routes to North America and to East Asia.

Thirdly, these airports are rivals for overlapping custom. Thousands of potential passengers can choose between say Prestwick and Glasgow, or Manchester and Liverpool. East Anglia is a battleground between Cambridge and Norwich.

In seducing custom from Heathrow and Gatwick they all have the same, but effective baits such as cheap or free car-parking, shorter check-in times, good public transport links and above all, the absence of the M25.

A rather different agenda applies to Luton and Stansted airports. Fog recently diverted an Estonian Air flight from Gatwick to Luton. I expect many of the Estonians on board were happier to arrive at an airport closer in size to Tallinn than the more formidable Gatwick. Any British person not living south of the Thames would have preferred the quicker journey home and the non-payment of a Gatwick Express ticket. Low-cost carriers such as Debonair, easyJet and Ryanair have introduced many travellers to these airports and as these airlines continue to expand, the airports will thrive with them to the detriment of both English regional airports and the other London ones.

The main difficulty for Luton and Stansted has been to convince foreign carriers that they are a more sensible London alternative both for the UK market and for their own. The number of over-subsidised national airlines quite happy to pay high charges for hopeless slots at Heathrow and Gatwick gives a newly-enhanced meaning to "folie de grandeur".

British Airways must have an increasingly difficult task in maintaining and winning custom outside London whenever transfers at Heathrow are involved. The airline's current winter timetable might seem to offer many logical routings - Inverness to Amsterdam via London for instance - but the small print reveals a three-hour wait at Heathrow, and of course conceals the direct flight operated by rival Air UK which flies Inverness-Amsterdam non-stop in one hour 35 minutes.

Glaswegians returning from Moscow may be tempted by the 75-minute connecting time allowed between Heathrow Terminal Four and Terminal One but over- zealous Russian immigration controllers combined with quite rightly zealous Heathrow air traffic controllers all too often lead to a failed connection and future business via Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Brussels.

The latest "Heathrow Flight and Travel Information Guide" (which costs pounds 1, unlike its free of charge regional equivalents) has a tortuous half page trying to explain which passengers need to use their Flight Connections Centre and which do not. It wisely omits altogether information on minimum connecting times to allow eight pages for a list of every shop in every terminal. In contrast to this, all regional airports revel in promoting single terminal continental hubs as an alternative to Heathrow. Amsterdam used to sell itself as the fourth London airport before Stansted and City became serious challengers. It now not only has competitors in the UK but also many in mainland Europe. Copenhagen and Helsinki have creamed off most of the Baltic and CIS traffic; Dublin even offers US immigration services as an incentive to use Aer Lingus regional links.

When can regional airports finally claim success? Clearly when they finally persuade Londoners to abandon their addiction to Heathrow or Gatwick. If 74,000 travellers from the West Country "enjoy" a journey to Heathrow, what does it take to encourage one in the opposite direction?