Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Heathrow Crises: One decade passed - two more to go?

When strategic plans go wrong there is always a high price to pay and lots to learn from, like in the case of Heathrow.

While heated debates and parliamentary hearings about the future of overused Heathrow runways continue, one thing is clear – whatever the solution, it will take about two decades to resolve the build-up of problems created by years’ long traffic overload at UK main hub airport. The runway usage is well above the official cap on the number of flights set to keep disruptions at an acceptable level - the limit that has been ignored for about a decade. The absence of space for recovery from even the smallest schedule change creates long cascading effects at Heathrow spreading disruptions throughout its worldwide network. 

The magnitude of runway overuse becomes more clear when compared with other similar airports - LHR does as many departures and arrivals as New York JFK with 4 runways or Dallas Forth Worth with 7. In terms of connectivity which appeared to be the major concern of politicians and businesses, London airports currently have 50% more seat capacity than Paris, the next biggest airport in Europe, and more connectivity to the top business destination than Frankfurt with 4 runways and Paris CDG with 4 runways combined.

All suggested solutions - from building new runways, spreading traffic to other nearby airports (assumes better ground connectivity) to closing Heathrow and building new airport at environmentally friendlier location have their pros and cons. Even though the equally important issue on how to avoid major traffic spills from overpacked and highly disrupted Heathrow during the interim period didn’t get much of attention, the unpopular question about capping the aircraft movements to 75% of current traffic in order to improve resilience was raised during the Select Committee Hearing and passed over to Airport Commission.

What will this interim period bring to the members of Heathrow ‘community’ if airport resilience doesn’t improve?

  • From airline perspective - more unstable schedules, more idle resources, more fuel, higher costs, loss of market competitiveness and reputation
  • From passenger perspective - longer, more inconvenient journeys and more costly travel
  • From ATC perspective - more challenges in controlling the air traffic
  • From the perspective of big influential businesses – impression that they will not be able to satisfy their expansion needs
  • From the perspective of politicians - more skilful shaping of public opinion
  • From economics perspective – more inefficiencies and more losses in money and time
  • From the perspective of environmentalists - more air and noise pollution in populated areas around the airport zone
  • From the perspective of industry consultants - increased demand for their services 
  • From the perspective of Heathrow owner - lower business risk backed up with disruptions that generate more retail revenue, and other ways of raising revenue caused by the potential drop in demand
Balancing these diverse interests already is and will always be a challenging task, but chances for doing it right this time including the interim period should not be missed. If no improvement is made in the foreseeable future, Heathrow reputation as one of the world's most disrupted airports may ruin the efforts for regaining its strong market position at later stage.

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