Tough luck if you don't live in London

Since Heathrow scrapped many air routes across Britain, thousands of passengers have been left stranded and out of pocket
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The Independent Online

Outside the main entrance of Birmingham airport is a big signpost of the kind that is popular at places like Land's End. It shows the distance and direction of all kinds of alluring destinations, near and far.

Prominent among them is London's Heathrow airport, just half an hour's flying time away. The trouble is, nobody's flying there. The signpost ought to direct people to the bus stop, for the two-hour coach ride to Britain's busiest airport.

Overseas visitors will find it strange indeed that, from provincial airports, Heathrow is harder to reach than it was in the 1960s. Even a decade ago, the aviation map of Britain looked more impressive than it does now. Shoreham to Norwich? Gatwick to Birmingham? No problem at all. Glasgow to Edinburgh? You hardly had time to fasten your seatbelt before you'd landed.

It is hard to make a strong case for flights to be revived between Scotland's two largest cities. But travellers from either Edinburgh or Glasgow hoping to reach Bournemouth have to fly via Dublin, as the direct links have been stopped. Those trying to get from Gatwick to Blackpool also face a change of plane. In fact there are numerous journeys that are long and difficult by road or rail for which there is no air alternative: Newcastle to Cardiff, Leeds/ Bradford to Plymouth and Inverness to anywhere in England apart from Gatwick or Luton.

Then there is the Heathrow problem. While travellers using Europe's busiest airport benefit from more international flights, business and leisure passengers from provincial cities are being squeezed.

This month, travellers from Leeds/Bradford and Teeside have been getting used to the idea that they have fewer links to London's premier airport - and the 200 destinations worldwide it offers. British Midland has cut back its services to make room for new flights to Milan, Rome and Madrid.

Britain's airline industry is turning into a two-class society: travellers who live close enough and are rich enough to use Heathrow, and the rest. Heathrow handles more international passengers than any other airport in the world, and commands higher fares. In an industry increasingly dominated by global groupings offering high-frequency flights on lucrative routes, the UK's smaller airports are losing out.

British Airways began the process three years ago, when long-standing links from Plymouth, Newquay and Inverness to Heathrow were axed. Services were shifted around the M25 to Gatwick, which has about half the number of connection opportunities. BA also bought the slots previously used for KLM UK's Heathrow-Guernsey flights. Result: travellers from the second Channel Island now have to fly to Stansted or Gatwick. Their slots are being used by BA for higher-earning international services.

The problem is the sheer popularity of Heathrow, and the way that "slots" - the right to depart or arrive at a particular time - are allocated. They belong to the airline to use as they see fit, not to the route. So British Airways and British Midland can switch with alacrity from domestic routes to international flights. And because Heathrow is effectively full, any airline seeking to step in and take over the domestic service would not be able to find suitable slots.

Britain's airlines could be the losers in the long run, since competitors from elsewhere in Europe are tempting provincial travellers with easier connections. West Yorkshire flyers, for example, find it easier to reach the Dutch, Belgian and Irish capitals than Heathrow: they can chose from six departures a day to Amsterdam, four to Brussels and five to Dublin, with connections worldwide on foreign airlines.

For flights within Europe, too, regional airports are missing out. Since easyJet introduced no-frills aviation to Britain five years ago, the low-cost airlines have grown to offer 2,000 flights each week between Britain and continental Europe. The problem is that almost all the growth is taking place from two airports: Luton and Stansted, just 25 miles apart, and hard to reach from most parts of the UK outside London and the south east. The only airports elsewhere in Britain with no-frills European flights are Liverpool, which has six destinations on easyJet, and Prestwick in southwest Scotland with two links: one to Beauvais in northern France, the other to the Moselle Valley in Germany.

British Airways' new chief executive, Rod Eddington, is likely to continue to shed less profitable routes - and observers fear that the axe could fall on BA's traditional links to Heathrow from Aberdeen, Belfast and Newcastle. The only bright spot for Britain's regional airports is Manchester, where later this month US Airways begins daily flights to Philadelphia. Under the terms of the US-UK air agreement, the airline is excluded from Heathrow. One problem: Manchester's second runway, which should turn it into a world-class airport, has failed to open on schedule for the summer.