Q&A: Should UK airports be building more capacity?

Massive over-capacity at airports as airlines expand, without space for any more planes

Just over two decades ago, when building airports was preferred over rail, Beijing was still developing its first two airports; most of the others have opened since. Many are already outgrowing their limits, while the airlines are expanding again.

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Twenty years ago the airports served less than 30 million passengers a year. Now they serve a combined 400 million. And that number is growing rapidly, according to analysts at Drewry. Aviation is expanding at twice the pace of the world economy as a whole. By 2020, passenger numbers will grow twice as fast as the economy. Demand for air travel is expected to grow at over double the rate of global economic growth, as young people in developing countries begin to travel more.

If you want to be the first to get their luggage from seat to baggage carousel, you can move on without any problem. In future airports of the future you may have to make an extra stop.

Airports are more than just the hubs for travellers, the busiest airports are doing their best to distribute traffic as best they can. Depending on the traffic fluctuations, they may try to accommodate some more passengers. For example, the airport in London Heathrow was built to cope with 37 million passengers a year, whereas its cap at present is expected to be reached in 2021. This is not just a theoretical issue, it is already a reality.

In England, more than a fifth of the public transport network and passenger transport companies now have their centre of operations in London Heathrow, which also accounts for 40% of London’s flight capacity, according to the UK government.

Heathrow’s secondary airport, Stansted, suffered a loss of 9% in passengers in 2017 compared with the previous year. Furthermore, the number of British passengers now travelling on international airlines to European destinations is almost double the numbers in 2000.

The advantage of airports nowadays is that they can improve traffic flow by inviting people to travel into the airport before they go through security, enabling them to unload their luggage more quickly. New airports are being built in rural areas. In 2017, at least six airports built in suburban areas were founded by airplane leasing companies or private equity funds. The newcomers were all in southeast England: Stansted, Liverpool John Lennon and Newquay in Cornwall, Luton in Bedfordshire, East Midlands in Nottinghamshire and Gatwick in southern England.

They mostly comply with modern aviation standards, allowing more movement between the destinations. But they also have the advantage of being located far from other destinations. For example, in Newquay, travellers can become acquainted with the beaches and marine life, and so the airport attracts many tourism companies.

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By contrast, the new airports that were built in coastal areas are not appropriate for tourism or long-distance flights. In spring 2003, Dubai International opened. It can accommodate 32 million passengers a year. But these are all short-haul flights and are incompatible with long-distance flights.

By the year 2025, the busiest airports will suffer from over-capacity, which means passenger pressure. In future airports, they will focus more on maximising passenger flow from the terminal, which is a useful step forward. But how much more efficient is it to spend considerable capital to enlarge airports, when the only way to increase the number of passengers is to increase flights? There is a constraint in the fact that the population density of airports in western Europe is very low.

That is why airports are increasingly extending their operating licences, meaning they can exceed their limit more than once. In 2000, the agreement between airports in the UK, Turkey and Czech Republic was extended for 20 years. At the time the deal was limited to 14 years, but the duration was later stretched to 20. In Britain, we have another 20 years until we need a referendum on the first extension.

All this would be a good time to expand airport capacity in Europe and increase flight connections. Unfortunately, that requires political will, as airports face increasingly big bills. Unfortunately, it takes two political parties to agree on anything.

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