BAA’s campaign to persuade the world to expand Heathrow Airport has been based on one major assumption: that the UK needs a hub airport, and that Heathrow is it.
Look at the data, though, and there are six very big reasons to think that Heathrow isn’t the UK’s hub airport at all.
1. You can’t get a train there.
You can get a train to Heathrow from just one UK city; London. You can get a direct train to Manchester Airport from almost every city in the north of England, a good chunk of north Wales, and the two biggest cities in Scotland. There’s even a tram from Manchester Airport to most parts of Greater Manchester if you want to get a proper Eccles cake before you fly.
2. You can’t fly there.
When I last checked you could fly to seven places in the UK from Heathrow. From Manchester you can fly to thirteen. How can Heathrow’ be a hub airport if you can’t use it as a hub?
3. There’s a better hub across the sea.
Manchester may be better connected to the UK than Heathrow but there’s an airport that easily beats them both.
You can fly from Amsterdam Schiphol airport to a whopping 24 airports in the UK. You’ll soon be able to get a train there from London, too.
They speak great English, the liquorice is delicious, the airport is efficient, and you can buy tulip bulbs and cheese while you wait for a connection.
4. The UK uses Schiphol not Heathrow to connect to the world.
The best option to fly to the world from most places in the UK is to fly via Amsterdam. The data proves it.
I used Google’s QPX Express Airfare API, and looked for the “best” one-way flight, two weeks in advance, from 15 airports in the UK & Ireland to 17 airports I selected around the world. This is the script (PERL) that I used to do it. Here are the results in a spreadsheet.
In a huge majority of cases, the best option was a flight via Schiphol.
I also did a further search in which I asked Google to find slightly faster flights, even if they cost a lot more. These points are called Heathrow (fast) and Manchester (fast) respectively.
5. It’s cheaper to fly to the world via Amsterdam.
A big airport with lots of flights means lots of competition: I wasn’t surprised that the cheapest flights are from Heathrow.
What did surprise me was that flights from Manchester are just a few pounds more. In fact they’re cheap enough to tempt almost all passengers from Liverpool, Leeds, and Sheffield to jump on a train to Manchester, and never expensive enough to push them to travel via Heathrow.
Guess where half of the flights from Manchester go via? Amsterdam.
6. It’s quicker to fly to the world via Amsterdam.
The UK city with the fastest connections to the world?
That shouldn’t surprise you by now, because it’s the closest airport to Amsterdam. Of course you can get places a bit faster from Heathrow if you’re willing to spend a lot more money – but it’s not that much quicker, and certainly not quick enough to make it worth the whole of most of the UK to travel via the south east for.
Why does this matter?
This issue gets to the heart of what we must fix if we are to preserve the United Kingdom as a strong and united country. Most coverage of Heathrow’s national role has come from the BBC (in London), the national print press (in London), and the Airports Commission (in London). This is leading to a lot of great answers, and some awful answers, to the wrong question.
The Airports Commission’s question boiled down to, “How can we keep the UK well-connected to the world via a hub in London?” But that’s a very different question to, “How can we keep the UK well-connected to the world?”
Heathrow is a national asset, in the sense that the hub-and-spoke model of UK air transport with Heathrow at its core was cemented during an era of nationalisation. When the airport was privatised, it was sold well below its true value, because it was stuck with a system that pegs landing charges at well below the market rate: that, in effect, puts a cap on the amount of profits any new owner could make.
This is effectively a subsidy from the poor north of England (which shared in the costs of under-pricing Heathrow) to the rich south (which gets all the economic benefits).
That may be a sensible approach; I’m tempted by the argument that the UK was, and may even still be, best served by a single huge airport of global significance, than by seven medium-sized airports of no global note. This is the “dividend of Union” we started to discuss in the UK, thanks to Scotland’s referendum.
But we must also discuss the other side of that dividend – and whether the bargain that parts of the UK away from the capital are making is being honoured.
Last week we learned that the electrification of Leeds’ critical, but slow and overcroweded, railway link to Manchester Airport will be indefinitely delayed. In the same month, the tunnelling for Crossrail, the UK’s huge investment linking Heathrow with central London, was completed and paraded in front of the world. There is an understandable feeling that the dividend of union is not currently well-shared.
For the past few months Heathrow has been spending a lot of the subsidy it gets from northern taxpayers on adverts in the north of England. I’ve seen them in Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool. They’ve bought so many impressions in online local media that on one day recently I noticed that three of eight adverts in the Yorkshire Evening Post were adverts for Heathrow’s expansion.
I think that Heathrow airport should expand. But I also think that London should decide. Like many in the North, I resent London telling me what to think. I doubly resent paying it to do so.
As a nation we need to be honest about what Heathrow represents and what kind of imbalances it causes. Far greater than the public spending its expansion will require in the already over-funded south is the imbalance in where the £100bn of predicted growth that it creates in the UK economy will accrue.
We know that the south will benefit far more than the north. That’s fine. But we must acknowledge that, and redistribute those gains. That means far more southern money being invested in future growth in the north in return for northern sacrifices now. It requires the beginning of a much more respectful and honest debate about both the dividends and the costs of our current Union.
There’s an outside chance I might be wrong
You can explain why in one word: freight.
Data about passenger flights is publicly available for a small fee; I spent less than £20 in API costs getting the flights data I present here. Data about freight is harder to find, and more expensive to buy. I can’t afford it.
Someone who can afford it is Chris Giles at the FT and he thinks that “Heathrow holds key to UK trade revival”. Chris is an excellent journalist and I don’t think he’s any more biased towards London, where he lives and works, than I am towards the north of England, where I live and work. He spent time looking at this and he thinks Heathrow is the answer.
Two points in his favour: Heathrow deals with the vast majority of the UK’s air freight; the majority of that air freight travels underneath the seats of the wide-body jets that fly out of Heathrow airport. The small jets that fly between Amsterdam and the UK’s airports carry less cargo.
He may be right, I’d love to have a chat about it, but until then here are three reasons why I disagree.
1. Economics. Yes, wide-body jets that fly long routes from Heathrow carry more cargo per person than the narrow-body jets that fly short routes from the UK’s airport to connect to Amsterdam. But if the Heathrow approach was much more efficient, the cargo income would subsidise passenger income and it would be much cheaper to fly from Heathrow than from Manchester airport. I’ve shown that the difference is tiny.
2. There are lots of long-haul destinations from Manchester. Wide-body jets fly from Manchester to hubs in America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East from where cargo can be forwarded. Direct flights from Manchester to the world’s largest cargo hub in Hong Kong started this year, and have been a huge success.
There are even huge jets flying from smaller airports like Newcastle and Glasgow direct to Dubai once or twice per day. When I heard the CEO of Newcastle City Council Pat Ritchie speak at last year’s Northern Futures conference in Leeds, she was overjoyed at the boost this had given her region’s exports. She seemed like a very smart woman.
3. Moving air freight from most locations in the UK to Amsterdam or Paris is not much more difficult than moving it to Heathrow. For rail freight, the Eurotunnel connects the UK to Europe. For lorries there are regular ferries to Holland from Newcastle, Hull, and Harwich.
There’s a lot of politics when it comes to airport expansion. I think Heathrow should expand. I just think that London should decide and pay for it.
In any case, the North will still be travelling via Manchester – from an airport that receives much less government assistance than Heathrow, has attracted huge foreign investment to expand, and is desperate to help even more of the UK grow and prosper.
Tom Forth is an associate at ODILeeds and runs a small software company in Leeds called imactivate.
Images: author’s own.