Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How do Heathrow runway talks affect Manchester?

The combined passenger numbers for London's four airports in 2011 are over 130m, just over half of which is accounted for by Heathrow, the world's third busiest airport (although these figures suggest that London is the world's busiest airport city).

London Heathrow
London Gatwick
London Stansted
London Luton


By contrast, Manchester Airport is the 17th busiest in the European Union with 18,892,756 passengers in 2011 (slightly more than Stansted).

The distances involved in getting between the "London" airports suggests that the concept of an airport city is always going to be a loose one. The distance between Stansted and Gatwick is 54 miles; Stansted to Heathrow is 42 miles; Heathrow to Gatwick (the core) is around 25 miles.

Of the busiest airports nearest to Manchester Airport, Liverpool John Lennon (24 miles away) had 5,215,161 passengers in 2011; East Midlands (53 miles away) had 4,215,192; and Birmingham (66 miles away) had 8,616,269.

Of the other airports in the British Isles, Dublin (18,741,095) and Edinburgh (9,385,245) and Glasgow (6,880,217) are the busiest in terms of passenger numbers for 2011.

These figures show that the airport map of the British Isles is dominated by London, as we would expect. Manchester and Dublin are the next busiest, the second tier if you like. A third tier would include Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool.


Manchester is one of only a handful of airports with the runway capacity for the new Airbus A380 megaplanes. The first to arrive at Manchester did so in September 2010 after a flight from Dubai. Soon afterwards, March 2011 saw the news that Emirates (based in Dubai), Etihad (based in Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Aiways (based in Doha) were all putting Manchester at the centre of their long-term strategy amidst signs that Heathrow was running beyond capacity. This is significant when we bear in mind that as recently as June 2012 it was remarked that the Gulf Carriers were "taking over the world."

If Manchester can build itself up as a Middle East hub then it looks to have a fairly secure future, with onward connections from there to the Far East. One possible factor in Manchester's success is the link between its football clubs and their growing global fanbase. Certainly the success of the two teams can't be a bad thing in terms of increasing the city's global brand. It helps that in September 2008, Manchester City were bought out by the Abu Dhabi United Group, who have close links with Etihad. In September 2011, it was reported that the Qatari royal family were interested in buying out Manchester United.

Manchester Airport is possibly the city's best asset. Located just over 7 miles south of the city centre in the Cheshire commuter belt, what makes it most attractive is the room for further expansion - not just of the airport itself but the businesses that rely on it. One recent theory suggests that airports will be central to the cities of the future. Even if seaports, railways and motorways will remain strategically important, it's likely that airports will grow in importance and this has recently been recognised by the government.

Plans for a £6,000,000 Airport City in Manchester (i.e. business park or enterprize zone) were being talked about in April 2011 "the first of its kind in the UK." These were endorsed by the Chancellor George Osborne in January 2012, who talked about creating "an international business destination to compete with similar locations in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Frankfurt."

Locally this development can only be a good thing in terms of bringing further investment and jobs to the area. There are misgivings about the fact that a lot of this investment will go in to the already affluent southern outskirts of the city. But the emphatic rejection of a congestion charge scheme in December 2008 is just one indication that the long-term attractiveness of doing business in Manchester city centre may be an issue that needs to be resolved.

Another long-term factor is the construction of the HS2 rail network. Although it will be many years before this is built, Manchester Airport has been proposed as a strategically important site for a train station along the route. Would this have the effect of taking business away from Manchester? Would it bring more benefit to London and Birmingham? These are questions which won't become relevant until 2033 if the line does actually get built.

If it does get built, High Speed rail may offer competition to the airlines itself at least in so far as connections to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt are concerned. However, as we have seen the future of Manchester Airport in particular may lie in the long-distance routes to North America, the Middle East and beyond.

The more immediate concern is over the government's recent proposals for talks about increasing airport capacity in the South-East, with the controversial idea of a third runway at Heathrow not being ruled out. The fact that such an idea is proving so controversial benefits Manchester but the distances involved mean that Birmingham stands to lose/gain the most from any decision. It's easy to imagine some sort of rebranding of Birmingham Airport as Birmingham London after the construction of HS2. Manchester is well located, further away, to avoid such a scenario and it already has the passenger numbers to justify investment in the Airport City development. Once this is built, Manchester may even be able to market itself as a credible alternative to overcrowded, congested London.


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