The Davies Commission, brought about to look into future UK airport capacity, has just published its first discussion paper.
The Commission will not publish its official recommendations until 2015, after the next general election, but on Thursday published its first discussion paper which lays down the key issues, discussion points and problems that the nation faces in respect of future airport capacity.
At no point does this initial paper deal with any specifics – ie there is no mention of plans for a 3rd or 4th runway at Heathrow nor the alternative plans for a new airport to the east of London – although it does identify the two key, conflicting business models that makes any future planning such a difficult task.
On the one hand there are airlines, such as British Airways, that have nailed their colours very firmly to the Hub model. Although British Airways operate flights out of London Gatwick & London City airports, the vast majority of its flights operate out of London Heathrow with, to a large degree, short-haul flights from the UK and Europe feeding its long-haul route network and vice verse. Capacity constraints at Heathrow mean that British Airways now serves less UK destinations than it did ten or twenty years ago and, with pressure to use each slot as efficiently as possible (ie operate bigger aircraft to long-haul destinations), there are fears in the likes of Belfast & Leeds/Bradford that, without an increase in runway capacity, they will soon lose connectivity to Heathrow altogether.
The second and contrary model, is that the future of aviation will see a marked increase in direct, point-to-point flights as travellers and airlines seek to avoid busy, expensive hubs and simply fly between far more different destinations. In the past, the relatively size small of the aviation market and limitations in aircraft design meant that this wasn’t really an option. However, with the increase in the world’s population and, in general, its wealth, together with the advent of aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 which can fly long distances much more economically than before, long-haul, point-to-point flights are becoming increasingly viable.
The question for the Davies Commission is, broadly speaking, which model is right for the UK and, equally importantly, whether the UK government and various airports are really in a position to shape the future. We can increase hub capacity at Heathrow or look to add capacity at regional airports such as Birmingham & Manchester; what we can’t do is tell passengers, especially from outside the UK, how and where they fly.