Full, half-full and half-empty


When it comes to having it both ways, Heathrow Airport is a past master.

As Transport Network reported last month, Heathrow is seeking permission for an additional 25,000 flights a year from its two existing runways.

Question: Is this good news? 

The assessment that Heathrow was ‘effectively full’ was the main reason the Airports Commission identified back in 2013 that new airport capacity – ie a third Heathrow runway – was needed.


This ‘full’ airport has now announced ‘the best year in its history after eight years of consecutive growth’ with 80.1 million passengers in 2018.

At the time of the Airports Commission Interim report (2013) the latest figures for Heathrow passenger numbers (2012) were 70 million. 

For an airport that is 'effectively full' to add 10 million passengers in just a few years – an increase of around 14% - is astounding. 

The mystery was answered by Cait Hewitt of the Aviation Environment Aviation Federation, who told Transport Network last month: ‘Heathrow has managed to increase its passenger throughput simply through the use of bigger, fuller planes.’

This seems to be a glass half-full, glass half empty situation.

If your view is what matters is not whether the UK has the capacity it needs (or even the number of flights that can address the challenge of climate change), but whether it is punching its weight against global competitors, then this 14% growth is simply not good enough.

Last year, the Telegraph revealed ‘The statistics that show how Heathrow is losing its “megahub” status’.

‘The lack of capacity has seen Heathrow stagnate in recent years. Passenger numbers rose by 3% in 2017, 1% in 2016, 2.2% in 2015 and 1.4% in 2014.’ But, compared to Dubai...

We know what the Airport Commission had to consider as the most important issue. The terms of reference for the Airports Commission were to see whether any additional capacity was needed ‘to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub’.

Unsurprisingly, the Commission concluded that as other airports grew, Heathrow needed to grow to compete.

It said: ‘In terms of connectivity, Heathrow continues to have a dominant position amongst European hubs on routes to North America and other established aviation markets. However, it has not been able to build on this and establish a similar position of strength in routes to emerging economies.’

Again, miracles never cease, because in terms of flights to emerging economies, in which category the Airports Commission put China, Heathrow now reports it 'doubled its Chinese connections in 2018, adding six new cities including Europe’s only flight to Shenzhen, the home of Asia’s Silicon Valley’.

And there can be no doubt Heathrow continues to have a dominant position in Europe.

Heathrow announced last week that its passengers numbers for January were up yet again – this time by 2.1% as ‘5.9 million passengers travelled through the UK’s only hub airport’ and Heathrow ‘reported its 27th consecutive record month’.

It said: ‘Figures from the ACI show that Heathrow remains Europe’s busiest airport, even though growth continues to be hampered the airport’s current capacity constraints.’

The ACI is Airports Council International, the trade body for airports.

The Airports Commission said previously: ‘And the number of domestic routes to the airport is declining, restricting access from other UK regions to Heathrow’s network of international services.’

Heathrow now reports: 'Domestic connections growing – Heathrow’s domestic connections are set to grow to nine as new services to Newquay begin in April.'

Following the re-launch of the Inverness services, the UK’s two furthest mainland airports will now be connected to the nation’s hub boosting trade and travel opportunities.’

Whichever way you look at it, Heathrow is thriving, despite the constraints it claims.

Does it recognise that success it proclaims is undermining the case for its new runway?

Far from it. For the airport, the glass is always half empty. Good news is bad news and vice versa. Last week it said: ‘The ACI also reports that aviation capacity issues are becoming more widespread and evident across Europe, strengthening the case for Heathrow’s expansion.’

First Heathrow needed to be expanded to stay ahead of European airports, now it needs to be expanded because of a lack of capacity in European airports.

As I said, when it comes to having it both ways…

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