Residents in the west take to the barricades whenever anyone tries to build a third runway at Heathrow, whereas BAA, Heathrow’s operator, is, unsurprisingly, all in favour of further runways at Heathrow, as is British Airways, whose grandfathered slots at the UK’s only hub airport are surely among its most valuable assets. Virgin Atlantic’s founder, Richard Branson, argues that shutting down Heathrow would be an economic catastrophe (he didn’t fight BA tooth and nail for Heathrow slots during the “dirty tricks” ‘90s for nothing).
Meanwhile, two proposals for a mega-hub in the Thames estuary have the citizens of Kent reaching for their pitchforks. Environmentalists say that building an airport in the estuary increases the risk of bird-strike by a factor of 12 – bad news for the birds, presumably.
The Conservatives were elected on a platform that officially ruled out a third runway at Heathrow, yet a pro-business faction within the party recently published a paper arguing for not one but two new runways in the west. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, say they will not abide second runways at either Gatwick or Stansted. The government is dithering on an airport decision, and will no doubt continue dithering until after the next election. As for the opposition, they used to be for a third runway at Heathrow, but then they lost the election and now they’re not saying where they stand on anything.
London’s chief air-traffic controller, Richard Deakin says London can have either Heathrow or Boris Island, but not both. To further complicate things, he says that an airport in the Thames estuary would require new flight patterns with knock-on effects into Dutch and Belgian airspace.
Oh, and there’s a sunken WWII warship laden with 1,400 tonnes of unexploded ordnance lying off the Nore – pretty much right where Boris would have his island.
As Dante might have warned anyone entering the circle of hell that is London’s airport crisis: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Yet London must have a solution. Heathrow, with its mere two runways – operating in the less-efficient segregated mode to reduce noise – is bursting at the seams, so much so that BA bought bmi to get its hands on the smaller carrier’s Heathrow slots.
But what is the solution? Should London meet increasing demand by spreading the load over its five existing airports? Should it expand its existing hub at Heathrow? Or should it build a new one?
Leaving aside the problems and challenges particular to London – the NIMBY politics, Westminster treachery, estuarine birds and sunken warships – the London airport debate raises a broader question, one that is of interest to cities throughout the world: in broad terms, which is better: is one mega-airport or several smaller ones?
Fair warning: this article has abandoned all hope of answering the question it poses. Instead, it treats the question as a starting point from which to consider the pros and cons of each position – mega-airport vs. multiple airports – from the points of view of all the primary stakeholders – the passengers, airlines and host cities.
Let’s begin with the multiple airport approach.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
From a passenger’s point of view, one big advantage of living in a city with several airports is that you will be more likely to live near at least one of them, or at least nearer than you would if you lived in a city serviced by a mega-airport, which tend to be quite far from the centre. For example, it’s five miles from Manhattan to LaGuardia, but 25 from downtown Dallas to Dallas Fort Worth International.
You could also argue that having several, decentralized airports prevents bottlenecks, since the airports can be spaced the airports around a city.
An economist might argue that citizens are better off living in a city with multiple airports because having an array of airports encourages competitiveness and prevents monopolistic behaviour by airlines and airport operators.
From an airport operations point of view, having numerous smaller airports means that ground operations are simpler, taxi times from runways to terminals shorter, and there’s a better chance of the airports complementing each other and taking up the slack should there be a problem. For example, if Heathrow’s snowed in, flights can be diverted to Gatwick.
Having several smaller airports allows airlines to develop their own hubs, which can create healthy competition between carriers. New York City, for example, benefits from having Delta hubbed at JFK and United Continental at Newark. The two carriers compete directly on 32 domestic routes out of NYC – and passengers benefit from regular price wars.
DANGER OF CROWDS
For passengers, probably the most glaring downside of a decentralised airport system is that it means fewer hub connections and may mean shuttling between airports – a real nuisance. For example, if a passenger going from Tokyo to Dublin has to fly to Heathrow then shuttle to Gatwick for his flight to Ireland, he’s going to be less happy than the passenger flying from Tokyo to Shiphol and connecting there to Dublin.
Airlines could argue that a multiple airport system punishes newcomers and gives legacy carriers an unfair advantage, since all airports aren’t created equal, and newcomer airlines are often obliged the former to operate from less-prestigious second-tier airports. As the authors of the Greater London Authority’s 2011 airport review puts it, “The severe capacity constraints at Heathrow have created an ‘insider’ / ‘outsider’ market whereby there is an incentive to the insiders to keep the outsiders out.”
A multiple airport system complicates the tasks of air-traffic controllers and pilots. For example, there’s nothing particularly challenging about the approach to LaGuardia (it’s hardly the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong), but it’s still a headache for pilots because they have to concentrate on not running into aircraft heading to or from JFK, just ten miles to the south, or Newark, 20 miles to the west. As for the controllers, imagine the sky over New York City as a mirror of the traffic on its streets. A lot of complicated coordination, to put it mildly, is required to make sure aircraft are sequenced at appropriate distances. Add noise-abatement procedures to that, and the men and women in the towers have one heck of a job on their hands.
As mentioned above, smaller airports tend to be closer to city centres. The downside of this is that regulations concerning air movements tend to be far more constrained than do those concerning mega-airports further afield. For instance, air traffic movements are often heavily constricted at night and on weekends, and authorities have to be extra vigilant about emission levels (especially ground-based emissions), at airports in heavily populated areas.
Smaller airports can become congested and congested leave terrible impressions on travellers. Heathrow, for example, regularly scores low on traveller surveys. Congestion also makes them vulnerable to disruption, since there’s not enough “give” in the system to accommodate problems.
Finally, inner city airports tend to have developed in an ad hoc way as commercial aviation developed through the 20th century, and their ad hoc designs often make them not only inefficient but also behind the eight-ball in terms of aircraft design. For example, many airports had to extend their runways to accommodate very large aircraft such as the A380, and, since the airports are close to the city, the reclaimed land can cost vast sums.
Now let’s consider what the advantages of one, mega-hub like Dallas Fort Worth or the proposed Boris Island might have over multiple airports.
WELCOME TO THE AEROTROPOLIS
First, the efficiency argument. For airlines, there’s little doubt that mega-hubs lead to economies of scale. Having all your operations in one place avoids market segregation and airline-service doubling, which leads to savings that – hopefully – are passed onto the passenger. A single unified airport means you’re not doubling up on everything from infrastructure to staff.
Next, from an operations point of view, a single airport makes hub operations much easier. There’s less competition for airspace. It’s no good telling a businessman in Manchester that, to get to his subsidiary in Guangzhou, he must fly to Gatwick then take a train or bus to Heathrow, then fly to Beijing and connect to Guanzhou if he can fly from Manchester to Amsterdam Schiphol and connect directly to Guangzhou there. A mega-hub means airlines don’t have to split operations.
For passengers, the sheer range of destinations available from a hub is a great benefit to its home market. Live near Paris CDG, and you can get to pretty much anywhere in Africa directly. Having one airport means not having to shuttle between airports (the “Heathwick” solution to London’s woes, which involves building shuttle services between Heathrow and Gatwick, is especially unappealing). It also makes life simpler ¬– No longer do you have to know which airport to pick up your wife from. She’s arriving simply at “the airport”.
For smaller countries at least, there’s an argument that a national super-hub brings national benefits – for small countries at least. As the authors of the Greater London Authority’s report put it: “By concentration more demand at a national super-hub airport, nationwide benefits are potentially greater. Lower point-to-point trips to overseas airports could be replaced by feeder trips to the hub.” A mega-airport also adds to a city’s prestige. Think of the Hong Kong or Dubai.
Because mega-hubs tend to be at some distance from city centres, there tends to be less issues around aircraft noise, which in turn gives traffic controllers greater leeway over sequencing. They don’t have to worry about ground-based emissions as much. They don’t have to stick to noise-level scheduling and can become 24-hour operations.
Mega-airports also allow airlines to develop new routes – a huge competitive advantage in an ever-shifting aviation sector. For example, Hartford, Connecticut, is hardly a major US destination, yet it has its own direct connection to Europe through Northwest’s route to Schiphol. There’s little doubt that Northwest chose Shiphol not for the local Dutch traffic but because it connects Hartford’s catchment area (a number of major American businesses and universities) with Europe. But would they have preferred Heathrow had a slot been available? As the Greater London Authority’s report puts it, “Hub operations allow for the number of routes to increase exponentially. By funnelling all services through a hub airport, a larger number of destinations can be offered to passengers and to the residents of the surrounding hinterland. This extra connectivity is a great benefit in attracting business and investment to the area.”
A major hub airport brings real economic benefits to its region, since it brings in passengers from outside the airport’s home market. Forty-three per cent of passengers at Amsterdam Schiphol, for example, are transferring through the airport (that is, neither starting nor finishing their journeys there). For contrast’s sake, the equivalent figure at Manchester in the UK is two per cent. Schiphol has been an economic bonanza for its region. Hubs draw business and economic activity to areas in a way smaller airports simply don’t. Global connectivity is recurrently cited by international businesses as a reason for choosing a location. For example, when Sony and Ericsson set up their global mobile phone joint venture in 2001, they chose as their world headquarters not Tokyo or Stockholm but West London for its proximity to Heathrow. And for their American HQ, they chose Atlanta for its proximity to Hartsfield-Jackson.
Now, let’s look at the downside of the mega-hub.
TOO BIG, TOO FAR
One is unavoidable – by definition, the mega-airport must be vast, which means much bigger travel distances for passengers and luggage from check-in terminals to gates and aircraft. It is by nature a massive beast and requires huge amount of investment, which airlines might be not willing to finance – particularly low-cost and charter carriers who don’t need the connection services of hub airports, and who’ll stick to their cheaper point-to-point airports.
Having just one airport, no matter how big, means that you’ve got all your eggs are in one basket. The airport because the single-point of failure in the network, and If something goes wrong – a storm, a terrorist attack, a strike – there’s no back-up, and the effects ripple out across the entire network.
For passengers, mega-airports tend to be further from the city and therefore more expensive and difficult to get to.
The airport crisis in London is real. Decisions such as whether to build a new airport or develop the several existing ones need to be made. It’s easy to become frustrated at the political wrangling and all the delays, and big business frequently play the scare card, pointing out that China is building no fewer than 75 new airports, let alone runways. We’ll fall behind, they say; we’ll sink into irrelevance.
But Britain isn’t China. It’s a small and crowded island, and no matter where you build an airport, someone’s going to be annoyed. As seasoned politicians know, when it comes to prisons, sewerage treatment plants and airports, voters agree on where they should be located: elsewhere.
And of course in China, the government is vast and all-powerful. If there are Chinese citizens who don’t like where any of the 75 airports are being built, no one in Beijing is going to lose his or her job. Not so in Britain. As the writer (and London resident) Alain de Botton put it: “Our inefficiency in building airports is a symptom of efficiency in other areas, such as democracy. We should celebrate the 15 years it took to build [Heathrow’s] Terminal 5. It is a tribute to our freedom.”