Simon Calder: Plane preposterous - the airport debate is awash with tosh

The man who pays his way

Should you happen not to be the new Transport Secretary, stop reading now. On second thoughts, given that Patrick McLoughlin this week became the eighth incumbent of that office since May 2006, carry on. With an average tenure of under a year, there's a fair chance that you – or, heaven forbid, I – will ascend to the job before the decade is out.

Your main task: what do we do with a problem like Heathrow? Most transport secretaries stay just long enough to utter the phrase "Doing nothing is not an option", then do precisely that while they wait to be reshuffled out of the danger zone. But in the hope that the issue of airport capacity in south-east England may finally be addressed, allow me to accelerate the process by eliminating the more preposterous arguments advanced by lobbyists on all sides of the debate.

Exhibit one: a BBC London TV news report on Wednesday evening, which featured some angry residents of Putney – whose MP, Justine Greening, was replaced as Transport Secretary because of her consistent opposition to expansion at Heathrow. As lorries thundered past in the background, one woman complained: "The Olympics was horrendous already. You really thought the chimney stacks were coming off."

In the absence of a correction to the contrary, viewers were invited to conclude that, during the Games, the number of flights had increased. It had not. (Incidentally, I would be more interested in the lady's response to a question such as: "You were clearly born after 1946, when Heathrow opened – so who lured you to live beneath the flight path for Europe's busiest airport?")

No China crisis

The pro-expansion side, too, is awash with tosh. The organisation that consistently talks more nonsense than any other is the Greater London Authority, which is lobbying for a Thames Estuary airport. Here it is lamenting the way that London lags behind European competitors in serving emerging economies. London, we are told, "has only five flights per day to the whole of China". In contrast, Frankfurt has 10, Paris 11.

The reader may infer that Chinese entrepreneurs, indignant at the absence of flights from Guangzhou to Gatwick or Harbin to Heathrow, will instead conduct business only with the Germans or the French unless new capacity is built.

But if you define the whole of China as, well, the whole of China, the numbers don't stack up. Most days, London has 17 flights to the People's Republic – of which 10 land in Hong Kong, by far the most powerful draw in China. When "HKG" is included in the count, London becomes the European city with the best Chinese connections.

An uncontentious fact is that London serves far fewer destinations than its rivals: 162, according to the usually reliable Anna.aero analysis, compared with 277 from Frankfurt, 247 from Amsterdam and 236 from Paris. The differential was seized upon this week by Brian Donohoe, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Aviation Group. It proved, he said, that "new routes to the emerging markets which represent the greatest economic potential to the UK, such as China and Brazil, cannot be opened up".

Oh yes, they can – it is just that the airlines serving Heathrow, in particular the dominant carrier, BA, prefer to use their precious slots to fly to a smaller number of destinations much more frequently. Today, for example, six flights depart from Heathrow for San Francisco, compared with three from Paris, two from Frankfurt and just one from Amsterdam. So concentrated are Heathrow's schedules that the departure boards of both Manchester and Gatwick offer far more destinations than the UK's leading airport.

But if you crave some exotic new gateway, then British Airways has some great news for you. Coming to Heathrow this winter, using slots acquired with the BMI takeover: those rising 21st-century economic powerhouses of Alicante, Rotterdam and Leeds/Bradford.

The Gulf widens

So much for the nonsense presented by interested parties on all sides. These are the three basics the new Transport Secretary needs to know.

Despite having no coherent aviation strategy for half a century, Britain is doing pretty well. London is still the world capital of aviation, with far more passengers arriving, departing and transferring than New York, Tokyo or Paris.

Heathrow is an incredibly complex machine that is switched on at 4.30am every morning and off at midnight, and works at full tilt every moment in between. Thanks to good organisation, and the world's best air traffic control, most of the time it works – making Heathrow easily the most efficient airport in the world. But when things go wrong, they unravel very quickly because there is no slack in the system.

The real competition that Heathrow faces is not from the usual suspects, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris. The threat comes from the Gulf, whose rulers can build as many runways as they wish, and order squadrons of new jets that will fly over Europe as they connect East with West.

The Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, knows this. He has torn up the Australian airline's cosy partnership with BA to create, with Emirates, what he calls "the most comprehensive premium travel experience on the planet".

From April next year, Qantas flights to and from the UK will no longer refuel at Singapore but at Dubai – on track to supersede London as the world's aviation capital.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent