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The reason why some airports are cheaper to fly from than others

The only way is Birmingham... or is it?

Simon Calder
Friday 22 February 2019 16:58 GMT
New look: the departures area at Luton airport
New look: the departures area at Luton airport (London Luton Airport)

“Why must we travel to Manchester or Gatwick to get the best deals on flights and holidays?” wonders David Wilson, a reader from the West Midlands. “Why should we be disincentivised from using our local airport?”

You can see his point. In a correctly calibrated world, a flight or package holiday from Gatwick to, say, the Greek island of Corfu, would always be slightly cheaper than one from Birmingham (BHX), because of the added distance from the Midlands airport. Similarly, Manchester departures to Greece would be more expensive than from Birmingham. For a flight in the opposite direction, say to Belfast, the converse would apply.

But rarely does it work like that. The price of a plane ticket or a package holiday from a particular airport depends on a range of forces, of which distance is only one. The bill for fuel relative to other departure points is, of course, important: Edinburgh is 325 miles further from Paris than is Heathrow. Yet airport-specific costs such as handling fees immediately come into play. The additional fuel costs from the Scottish capital are offset by much lower airport charges at EDI than LHR.

The main determinants of price are passenger demand and the supply of departures, and by extension the amount of competition. Gatwick and Manchester are seen as the key “holiday” airports, each with a large catchment area. Airlines such as easyJet, Jet2, Thomas Cook Airlines and TUI have their largest bases of operation at one or the other. They know that demand is robust, and respond by allocating assets.

BHX, of course, is right in the middle of a big population base, stretching from Rugby via Coventry and Birmingham itself to Wolverhampton. Oxford and Leicester are other important cities within easy reach of the main Midlands airport. Monarch had a big base at Birmingham before its sad demise, and it is an important hub for Flybe.

But airlines and tour operators have evidence that the market is strongest year-round or season-through from Gatwick and Manchester, and these airports therefore get the most attention in terms of aircraft and crew. One attempt to make Birmingham the hub for a budget airline, MyTravelLite, did not end profitably.

Having said that, in any other country an airport like Birmingham’s for a city of that size would be seen as a credit to the region – with a good spread of European destinations and services to key hubs including Istanbul and Dubai.

When Thomas Cook chose to restart flights to Tunisia, the first departure was from Birmingham. Arguably, for any new destination Birmingham is the place to start because travel firms can then identify with some fairly basic postcode analysis where demand is strongest.

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When I am assessing the holiday market (or seeking a cheap flight, especially in peak season), I will search all the major UK airports. Sometimes Birmingham pops up with better deals than any other airport. Sometimes nearby East Midlands or Luton, or another provincial airport such as Bristol or Newcastle, is ahead. But often Manchester or Gatwick have the lowest prices and widest choice.

The best strategy for David Wilson and the millions of other travellers for whom the ideal airport is BHX is to use the place – paying the higher fares and package prices. It won’t take long for the big operators to notice, and they will pile in with capacity to take advantage of the strong demand. In time, Birmingham might become the natural airport for travellers from the Midlands and beyond. But only if people decide to buy and fly local.

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