27 MAY 2013
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Two apparently unrelated actions may have a dramatic effect on the Prime Minister’s airport commission (Davies) now considering the future of London as the UK aviation hub. The nature of these two events will serve to further emphasise the lack of any airline industry experience by the 18 members of the committee.
On Friday a British Airways Airbus A319 on a regular flight to Oslo from Heathrow turned back and made an emergency landing on the northerly runway 27R. Nothing abnormal about that but suddenly there was short term chaos at the airport, and (for unexplained reasons) both runways were closed. It took the rest of the day to get things back to normal. In total 192 flights were cancelled, the majority BA, and 22 aircraft were diverted to other airports.
On Thursday Flybe, blaming runway charges and APD, announced the sale of 25 Gatwick return slots to easyJet, putting into question its seven domestic routes – from Belfast City, Guernsey, Inverness, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Newcastle and Newquay. Nothing will happen until the end of the winter season March 2014. Some would argue that the airline was selling its Crown Jewels. Staff will be made redundant, and aircraft leases terminated or not taken up.
The Heathrow incident highlights the turmoil that a runway closure causes at the world’s busiest international airport, running at virtually maximum capacity. (See the Dubai story re runway closures for maintenance.) There is no room for manoeuvre. Whatever others might say passengers want to come to Heathrow. Birmingham is running at one third capacity and Manchester little more.
A third runway at Heathrow appears to be the only answer. Mixed mode would not have helped. Gatwick clearly also needs a second runway mid-term. It is getting near full, does a remarkable job on a single track, but once again has no room to manoeuvre if the main runway is closed. That airport’s current emergency runway offers little flexibility.
The probable loss of the London routes from the Provinces is extremely serious for all the regions concerned. London City, Luton, Southend and Stansted will try and attract carriers. The UK domestic airline scene is very weak with Flybe just about surviving and bmi Regional, Eastern and Loganair with their own niche operations. Ryanair is hardly a contender; Aer Lingus/Aer Arann does not even have a Chief Executive at the present time, which leaves easyJet with most of the cards to play. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are clearly not interested in Gatwick.
For London the Channel Islands are left with a BA monopoly Jersey – Gatwick; Jersey – London City with Blue Islands and a single Flybe Luton service. Guernsey is served by Aurigny to both Gatiwck and Stansted whilst Blue Islands again go to London City.
This brings us back to Northolt as a solution to the regional crisis brought on by Flybe. It could offer the London gateway for the (presumably) seven dropped routes plus other potential domestic points including Carlisle, Plymouth and Teesside. The Royal Air Force now says that (for financial reasons) the annual civil movements can be increased from 7,000 to 12,000 and the aircraft size increased. As the short term Coventry Airport operation (700,000 passengers in its best year) proved it is possible to use simple existing facilities very cheaply. One difficulty to be overcome is the change in airport standards from military to civil use. But where there is a will there is a way. What is Davies going to say in December?
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