Britain’s two largest airports revealed record passenger numbers for 2014, and naturally wasted little time using them to take swipes at each other. On the surface, this round of their long-running spat seems to go Gatwick. While Heathrow boasted an impressive 73.4 million passengers, up 1.4% on 2013, Gatwick charged ahead with a 7.6% increase to 38.1 million.
In fact, Heathrow lagged behind all the major London airports, with Stansted, Luton and London City all achieving passenger growth of over 8%. The reason is clear – Heathrow has reached capacity, which is why, of course, it says it needs that extra runway.
‘Airlines can only make flights to many long haul destinations viable from a hub airport like Heathrow,’ said Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye. ‘Only by expanding Heathrow can we add direct flights to the world's growing cities, increase our exports and connect all of the UK to global growth.’
A central question in the dispute between the two airports is whether air travel in the future will rely on hubs like Heathrow in the way it has done in the past. Gatwick believes the longer range of modern planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner takes away the technical necessity for hubs, making room for competition from point to point airports (like Gatwick).
Heathrow, on the other hand, points to hubs as the only economically viable route to transcontinental travel. Just because you can fly from Aberystwyth to Atlanta, their argument goes, doesn’t mean there’ll be sufficient demand for it.
There are some signs that the market is backing hubs, at least for now. Over the weekend, Heathrow announced that Vietnam Airlines will defect from Gatwick in March and launch its Dreamliner service from Heathrow. This, it said, was ‘further proof that the aircraft is actually a "hub grower" and not a "hub buster"’.
Holland-Kaye pointed to Heathrow’s passenger growth to and from emerging markets like Vietnam as a sign that backing the hub airport would be best for British business. Gatwick, he said in a recent interview, was only good for ‘holidays in the sun’.
Gatwick boss Stewart Wingate retorted with a pantomime-style ‘oh no it isn’t’, describing Holland-Kaye’s interview as being straight out of the ‘Gerald Ratner playbook’, and reminding him that one in five Gatwick passengers flies on business.
Of more impact as a rebuttal, however, is Gatwick’s list of new, longer distance, point-to-point routes, which shows at least some carriers are rejecting the ‘hub is king’ argument. At Gatwick last year, easyJet launched flights to Tel Aviv and Garuda Indonesia started a service to Jakarta, while the Icelandic low-cost airline WOW announced it would fly to the US from only £99. Wow indeed.
Only time will tell just how far point-to-point airports will replace hubs, but it’s a question the Airports Commission will surely have chewed to death by the time its report comes out in the summer post-election. Whether or not the next government actually listens to it is another question, but it will be almost as interesting to see whether Heathrow and Gatwick kiss and make up once the decision’s made.