Transport Airports

Reasons Why London’s Airports Will Fade, Even if They Add Runways

Dec 18, 2013 2:00 am

Skift Take

Although the New York-London route is still the most consistently profitable route in the world, this too will fade. And London needs to prepare. On the flip side, New York City’s airports have never really bothered to prepare.

— Jason Clampet

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Stefan Wermuth  / Reuters

A sign protesting against a third runway is seen in the village of Sipson near Heathrow Airport in west London August 28, 2012. Stefan Wermuth / Reuters


The interim report from the Airports Commission [embedded below] has taken us a step closer to building the airport capacity many argue the UK economy desperately needs. However, even if the country achieves Sir Howard Davies’ goal of additional runway capacity by 2030, the world we inhabit by then will have moved on considerably.

Well before 2030, both Heathrow and Gatwick – and, if built, a new estuary hub – will appear far down the global league table of international airports.

Heathrow is operating almost at capacity in terms of seat capacity and frequency of flights – between 2009 and 2013 its seat capacity grew by just 1.3pc. By contrast, Gatwick saw seat capacity grow by 3.3pc, largely through further development of short-haul scheduled services from carriers such as easyJet, and by attracting airlines effectively excluded from Heathrow. However, this growth has been achieved from a much lower base.

In as little as 10 years’ time, the world will be a very different place in terms of airport capacity. Even if we do manage to meet Sir Howard’s construction deadline, which is questionable given the reluctance of the political parties to grapple with the issue, it will likely come too late for Heathrow to maintain its standing in the top 10, let alone top three, airports in the world in terms of seat capacity.

My company specialises in airline data, and our analysis, based on average growth rates of scheduled seat capacity in the past five years, reveals an impending fall from grace for Heathrow. OAG’s data show that for a number of years, the top-tier seat capacity table has remained consistent, with Heathrow sitting comfortably in third position, while Atlanta and Beijing have jostled between first and second. In as little as five years’ time, Heathrow will drop into eighth position, its scheduled seat capacity increasing from nearly 95m to just over 97m.

In contrast, Beijing will have increased its seat capacity to nearly 150m in the next five years, securing its place at the top of the rankings. Dubai and Jakarta will reach second and third place respectively. In the next 10 years, Heathrow will have dropped a dramatic 12 places into 15th position, with just under 100m scheduled seats per annum. By 2023, the new world-leading airports in terms of scheduled seat capacity will be Jakarta in third place, Istanbul in second place and Dubai still top with around 260m seats.

Closer to home, strategically as well as geographically, Heathrow and Gatwick are also falling behind in Europe. Amsterdam’s Schiphol, which grew by 2.8pc in seat capacity in 2009-13, has positioned itself as a direct competitor to Heathrow. The airport provides a hub for Europe and connects passengers to both the East and the West. Amsterdam now has six runways, with a further runway under consideration.

Frankfurt opened a fourth runway in October 2011, a new terminal in October 2012 and has a third terminal planned. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, which admittedly saw seat capacity shrink by 0.3pc in the period, is well positioned for expansion, with plenty of land available for growth and excellent transport links via the RER and TGV railways.

But it is Turkey and the Middle East that have seen the most significant development over the past few years. Turkish Airlines has followed an aggressive capacity expansion plan and looked to attract passengers flying from Northern Europe to Asia as well as intra-regional and North American traffic. Istanbul, at the heart of this traffic, has seen seat capacity increase by an immense 14pc between 2009 and 2013.

In the Middle East, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai have all seen huge investment in airports infrastructure driven by the engine of the Gulf’s “superconnector” airlines – Etihad, Qatar Airways and Emirates. These new hubs are ahead of the game.

The importance of airport capacity expansion to the UK economy is hard to overstate.

If Britain is to retain prosperity and influence in the new world order, it is vital the country extends its global air connectivity. Only with increased capacity can the UK establish reciprocal airline routes with the fastest-growing economies to benefit from trade and inward investment. Although many other markets have marched ahead, if the UK makes this belated investment in its air infrastructure it can still profoundly benefit future generations.

John Grant is executive vice-president of OAG, a provider of flight schedules, flight status and aviation data

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