Simon Calder: Transit traffic and the airport problem

The man who pays his way

The shopping bags and reading matter of my fellow passengers on flight BA245 to Buenos Aires, and the debate about where to put the next runway in the London area, may not seem related. But bear with me a moment.

Of the 100 or so people around me in the rear of the plane, I reckon at least 80 were transit passengers at Heathrow Terminal 5. My evidence is the exotic range of bags from cities such as Berlin and Zurich, and a discreet survey of their books and newspapers which suggested few have English as a mother tongue.

The vast majority of passengers started their journeys outside the UK (as, technically, did I, but more of that later). And they provide, say supporters of a third runway at Heathrow, essential evidence of why only a single hub airport can be sustained.

In a perfect world, British Airways would fill every seat on every flight to the Argentinian capital with people starting their journey in London – so called "origin and destination" (O&D) passengers. People who are prepared to pay a premium for flying non-stop, rather than going via continental Europe or North America, are ideal targets for the airlines.

BA has little trouble filling the plane with O&D passengers on some days, but on others the demand simply isn't there. BA's extensive network allows it to turn transit traffic on and off like a tap, putting lots of tempting fares into the market when loads are light. Anyone flying from Copenhagen to Los Angeles, for example, may find on one day that the fare is low, say £540 return, but on the next it is unavailable except at a silly price of £1,500 or so.

The argument goes that this reservoir of passengers helps BA optimise its operation, to the benefit of everyone. The airline can afford to offer a daily service to a wide range of destinations, which is what business travellers demand, only because Tomasz, Dirk and Harald help keep the planes reasonably full, year-round.

British Airways is the chief beneficiary of Heathrow's hub status, but there are a couple of ways in which this could be jeopardised. The first is if other airlines develop superior hubs that lure traffic away. This is already happening, but could soon accelerate. The biggest threat is not the traditional foes – Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt – that are accused of eating the UK's inflight lunch. Nor does it come from the Gulf, though Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways provide mighty competition. It is Istanbul – the biggest city in Europe by population, and home to Turkish Airlines.

Turkey's national carrier has been slow in exploiting its location, but is now expanding relentlessly – serving more places in Africa than any other airline. Unlike its Gulf-based rivals, which have to decide if they could fill a wide-bodied plane, Turkish Airlines can deploy smaller 737s to places such as Birmingham and Edinburgh, with Bristol tipped to be next. This provides an exotic short-break destination, but it also unlocks Asia, Africa and (soon) Australia to passengers from these airports.

From BA's perspective, the solution is to build another runway at Heathrow, allowing the airline to grow, rather than merely shuffle its destinations from the same pack of slots.

The second threat is a second runway at Gatwick – creating a two-hub system rather like New York (with JFK and Newark). Heathrow enthusiasts insist transit traffic would be diluted, making many routes unviable and therefore damaging the interests of UK travellers.

Financial sense, but environmental idiocy

So much for the case for expanding an existing hub. But there is a powerful counter-argument. I once flew from Madrid to Moscow, and concluded I was the only non-Spanish-speaking passenger – and the only one whose final destination was the Russian capital. Everyone else seemed to be Spanish or Argentinian, en route to Moscow in order to fly on to Buenos Aires, probably directly over the Spanish capital.

From the passenger's perspective, it is perfectly rational to trade extra hours in the air for saving hundreds of euros. But from the planet's point of view it is madness. If lots of Madrileños want to go to South America for a reasonable fare, they should be able to find a non-stop, low-cost flight rather than squandering time and resources on a connection.

In the UK, Gatwick has always been the main base for long-haul budget airlines. From Laker Airways to Zoom, many have gone bust, but Norwegian is seeking to reverse the tradition when it launches low-cost links from Gatwick to Florida, New York and Los Angeles in July. Gatwick's owners say a second runway would allow the breed to expand.

On Thursday, Sir Howard Davies – chairman of the Airports Commission – may offer hints about which argument he favours at the Runways UK conference. I will try to interpret the tea leaves to discern where the next runway may be.

A short break in Geneva courtesy of the airline

Back aboard BA245: like practically everyone else, I had started my journey outside the UK. When you switch from being an "O&D" passenger to a transit traveller, you tend to pay a lot less for off-peak tickets. It was well worth my while to buy a one-way flight to Geneva, enjoy a short break there, and commence my journey from Switzerland's westernmost city rather than London. In effect, the airline bankrolled my entire stay in pricey but lovely Geneva.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup