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Airport Thinking

Heathrow - A Bygone Relic

As the turgid, ill-informed debate continues around Heathrow, it may be time to look at where real growth is taking place in Europe.

Two of the most interesting airports to watch are Barcelona and Cologne - the former as it is seen, perhaps, as the new "Southern Hub" and Cologne as a potential "Northern Hub" (and, of course, Cologne sits in the Golden Triangle from an air traffic perspective). Barcelona is being shown keen interest by the trans-Atlantic operation of the carrier Norwegian (among others and before we even start to look at RyanAir) whereas Cologne has a similar draw. Lufthansa has woken up to the insurgents and has plans up its sleeve using their Eurowings offshoot as a vehicle. British Airways have recognised Barcelona and are also making moves to improve their presence there. Let us hope that the motive behind the British Airways move is driven by foresight, rather than by any "me-too" style thinking.

Both these airports (BCN and CGN) have seen significant investment as well as integrated infrastructure. Barcelona with the new-ish Madrid rail shuttle and Cologne sits in neatly with Germany's ICE trains, giving direct access to main European cities. Barcelona has seen its passenger traffic rise by leaps and bounds, with growth rarely dropping beneath 6% and Cologne also enjoys double-digit growth. Heathrow barely manages to get more than a 1 or 2% increase and has seen no significant increase, year on year, in traffic since 1992.

In among this plethora of growth and development sits the question of the "also-ran" that is Heathrow. Heathrow is a relic; a reminder of air travel as it was perhaps 30 or more years ago, when stopping off at the first major airport across the pond was an important feature. Originally, of course, this was Shannon - but aircraft design and capabilities have moved on - and they have moved on again. Anywhere in Europe is easily accessible for modern aircraft - so why would any airline want to major at an airport that sits on an island, with limited infrastructure and a high level of congestion?

Even with 3 runways, Heathrow is an also-ran. It does not go anywhere, has no proper rail infrastructure and connects to very little. Even getting to London is a nightmare chore for any traveler - expensive by rail and painfully slow by car.

Has Heathrow got a place in Europe? Yes, it does. Not, however as a Euro-Hub. If anything, Manchester would be better placed to become a UK-Hub if, that is, HS2 (the painfully slow-moving project to drag UK rail into the 20th Century - let alone the 21st) gets built in good time. Heathrow would serve well as being a Euro-mini-Hub serving, mainly, London. Heathrow will see many long-haul routes move to better placed and better equipped Euro-Hubs and here, Heathrow should be recognised as being a key stakeholder for providing connecting traffic and so, making sure that is has the best connections to where-ever the Euro-Hubs are located. This would mean a focus on the best-timed connections to Euro-Hubs and introducing low-cost carriers into the Heathrow mix. This can be easily achieved with the existing two runways - or even by closing Heathrow and focusing all short and medium haul traffic on a much-expanded (and much better connected) Gatwick Airport.

Heathrow considered as a main hub is a has-been. A relic. An anathema. Unless this is recognised and accepted by Heathrow and the current UK Government, we will see public money wasted and some great opportunities to provide a real, sensible and efficient feeder airport lost.

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