Restricted Heathrow is failing to serve UK, warns airport tsar

Sir Howard Davies tells Simon Calder that London’s hub needs to think nationally

Solving London’s aviation capacity crisis must make provision for flights to other parts of the UK, Sir Howard Davies has told The Independent. The man tasked with prescribing a solution to the shortage of runways in south-east England said: “It’s been made very clear to us in our regional visits that, unless we think about connectivity to London, we will miss a big part of the picture.”

A discussion document published on Thursday by the Davies Commission reports: “The number of domestic UK destinations served from Heathrow has fallen to seven in 2013, compared with 10 in 2000.” Sir Howard said: “The big fear in places such as Belfast and Edinburgh is that if you only have a constrained airport like Heathrow, it will grow its links to China at the expense of regional flights – and to some extent that’s happened.”

The Airports Commission, as it is officially known, is required to report by the end of this year on interim measures to make best use of scarce runway capacity in south-east England. Sir Howard said: “Bluntly, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to produce a set of short-term options which will massively increase the capacity at Heathrow.”

His main task is to make recommendations on expansion by the summer of 2015. He said: “The optimist in me says, there might be a moment immediately after the next election, when a new government has a willingness to grapple with this and make decisions. Maybe it’ll get lost in the mire again, but I hope not.”

Heathrow, which is at the centre of controversy about expansion, has been operating very close to its stipulated limit for many years. The discussion document says an early-morning slot at the airport can trade between airlines at £15m. It also reveals that foreign governments are refusing to endorse any increase in capacity unless their airlines get access to Heathrow: “The Russian authorities have explicitly stated access to slots at Heathrow as a barrier to further liberalisation,” says the paper.

One effect of the scarcity of slots has been for airlines to increase frequency to the most profitable destinations, at the expense of a diversity of destinations. The number of cities served from Heathrow reached a peak of 175 in 2006, but within five years a dozen destinations had been cut.

Seven weeks ago, British Airways abandoned its links with both Dar es Salaam and Tbilisi, capitals of Tanzania and Georgia respectively. Both Gatwick and Manchester serve dozens more destinations than Heathrow.

One inference that can be drawn from today’s discussion paper is that London is increasingly resembling a city state – closer, in aviation terms, to Dubai and Singapore than to the rest of Britain. The document says: “While on average in the UK, each resident takes just over 1.5 flights abroad per year, a resident of London takes on average 2.5 flights.”

While one in three passengers at Heathrow is connecting between flights, the figure at provincial airports is negligible. At Manchester, the third-busiest airport in Britain, only one in 50 passengers is in transit. Gatwick lost more than half its connecting traffic in the decade from 2000, as a result of British Airways abandoning its dual-hub model, and the shift of transatlantic services to Heathrow.

Airports: The options

Heathrow third runway

One of the world’s busiest airports with over 70 million passengers a year, Heathrow is already close to full capacity. A third runway is seen as the best option to keep Britain competitive but environment campaigners claim it would increase noise pollution to those living underneath the flight path and make Heathrow Britain’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

New ‘Boris Island’ airport in Thames Estuary

Championed by the London Mayor Boris Johnson, the project at Shivering Sands, Kent, would include four floating runways tethered to the sea bed at a cost of up to £60bn. Critics point to the increased risk of birds striking planes, damage to the rare estuary wildlife and the huge cost as reasons for not building the airport.

Another runway at Gatwick

The world’s largest single runway airport with more than 33 million passengers a year could add a second landing strip. The proposal would see fewer people affected by noise pollution at Heathrow and capitalise on the airport’s good transport links to London. But with existing agreements meaning no second runway can be built before 2019 it is an unlikely solution.