Looking at the transport policies from the candidates of the three main parties, it’s clear that they all support Birmingham Airport’s second runway plans.

Commenting from the point of view of aviation economics, rather than just the environmental issues which naturally concern us all, I think all 3 candidates are dreaming, and not thinking this through. The calls for more investment in the West Midlands are absolutely valid for public transport and cycling, and especially the latter as no scaling is needed. London is always going to justify more rail investment, because the tube has that “critical mass”, but the disparity between the regions still remains enormous.

But when it comes to promoting air travel, there are some really serious flaws in the logic of the three candidates:

Birmingham Airport Second Runway Plans – the drawbacks

  1. Legacy airlines gravitate to hubs. Neither BA nor Virgin have ever wanted to even use Gatwick, but they remain there due to the pressures for space at Heathrow.
  2. The value of a hub airport for connections is the square of the number of destinations it offers (Broadly speaking). Birmingham isn’t, and can’t be a hub.
  3. Birmingham can be a base, and it can feed the hubs of other airlines, but these are basically private, commercial decisions. (A base is an airport where aircraft are typically stored overnight and where crew will start their day, a hub is a point for interconnection between different flights on the same ticket).
  4. Birmingham currently handles +/- 10m passengers per year. There is no local demand for 55m.
  5. HS2 goes past BHX via a shuttle transfer, just as it also connects to Heathrow, via Old Oak Common (~12 minutes).
  6. HS2 will make Heathrow more attractive to West Midlanders than BHX will be to Londoners.
  7. Birmingham Airport second runway plans forget that no airport in the world has expanded by distantly serving another city by high speed rail – this was tried with Ciudad Real in Spain. The airport is now deserted.
  8. Presence of even an established **regional** airport and high speed rail in the same space is no guarantee of interplay between the two – eg Lyon Satolas in France. People simply drive to use the TGV as a park and ride station, and many will use the TGV to go to Paris instead of flying, but interchange is minimal.
  9. The value of rail links to airports is often massively overstated. No airport has more than half its passengers arrive by rail. Even the high profile Hong Kong airport rail link, which runs over just 19 miles and goes right into the terminal, only handles 24% of the airport’s passengers.
  10. BHX can and should serve destinations where there’s local demand. For example, Berlin has been an on/off destination over the years. There is no place for an elected mayor to promote more flights to the German capital or anywhere else – it’s a simple commercial decision.
  11. For long haul destinations or those which can’t be served from BHX, London is always going to pick up the passengers. Birmingham is not Manchester – London airports (perhaps except Gatwick) are all within reasonable catchment of the Midlands. They might not be ideal in may respect, but they offer the routes, together with the frequency and the service standards. No amount of new runway can change any of this, because the highest value passengers are all in London and the Southeast.
  12. There is no mechanism to subsidise airlines, and regional funding for a small (and extremely under-used) runway extension is not going to be replicated to pay for a new runway.
  13. Airports are by no means automatic contributors to the local economy. Whilst BHX does indeed employ many people directly, it is a far larger exporter of tourism receipts than it is an importer of visitors to the West Midlands. The reasons for the local tourism deficit are also largely applicable at the national level (inability to issue Schengen visas).
  14. The Midlands already has a freight hub at East Midlands. It can operate 24/7, as it has a minimal noise footprint, especially when compared to BHX.
  15. In passenger terms, EMA, BHX and of course Coventry are all well under capacity. This cannot be changed by trying to induce demand with a new runway at BHX too.
  16. Contrary to popular belief, London is not short of airport capacity. London’s problem is one of a serious shortage of hub capacity close to the main centre of population (or too close as could also be argued). Luton and Stansted could both add new terminals without adding a new runway, whereas Kent Manston lies dormant, for similar reasons to those which would apply to “London BHX” – it is too distant.

In short, without any explanation of who will sign the cheque, a new runway would take anything from £5bn upwards, and it would ultimately deliver very little of value. Even if 55m people each year did use it, and they all arrived by train, why should Birmingham act as an air pollution proxy for London’s problem?

To think that the case for making our cities offer freedom of movement to everyone is based on spending perhaps £1bn across the whole region, it really is a shame to see all candidates support such a daft and economically unsound scheme.

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