Comment: How we’ve been conned into believing the UK has an airport crisis

One of the greatest confidence tricks ever pulled was to convince the public that there is an airport capacity crisis in the UK.

Every conversation about airport expansion now starts from the assumption that it is urgently required. Every debate begins by asking where expansion should take place, not whether it should take place.

How has this remarkable feat been achieved? How have the public been swindled into believing that our airports are full to bursting, with planes being turned away in the skies?

Because if you look at the figures, it's clear that we are not even close to having an aviation capacity crisis in the UK.

Of the ten busiest airports in the country, just one (Heathrow) is technically full. The rest are massively underused. In 2012, Stansted had 47% of all its runway slots left empty, while Luton airport had 51% unused.

Even Gatwick, which is currently fighting with Heathrow for the right to build more runways, was 12% underused.

The aviation lobby itself admits there is no current shortage of runways in the UK, preferring instead to predict that we will face a theoretical shortage at some point in the future.

Compare this to our domestic public transport network where commuters are already routinely left without seats or even room to breathe and you begin to see the scale of the confidence trick being played on us.

This isn't to say that there is no problem at all. According to Heathrow's operators, 98% of its runway slots were full last year, with passenger demand continuing to rise. If there is a case for expansion anywhere then it is at Heathrow.

Yet expanding Heathrow would be both politically and practically impossible. Building another runway there would cost up to £20 billion, increase airport fees, and disrupt one of the busiest roads in the UK. It would cause massive increases in noise and air pollution and inflict misery on thousands of Londoners. There is not a single politician who could be elected on a platform of building more runways in the West London suburbs. It is a total and utter non-starter.

So what can we do about it? The first thing we must do is to dispel the myth that Heathrow is somehow the UK's national airport. In fact, analysis commissioned by the London Assembly last year found that over two thirds of the 127 million passengers using Heathrow began their journey in east or south east England, with a majority of those coming from London itself.

As the above graphic shows, Heathrow is predominantly a local airport. And while the argument for expansion has focused on its role as an international 'hub', the vast majority of flights (between 70-75%) are short-haul leisure flights. Heathrow's location and public transport connections makes it the obvious choice for Londoners taking a break.

Yet there are many other airports near London that could be used by those passengers instead. In August this year I took a flight from Southend Airport for the first time. Expecting vast queues of harassed travellers I turned up the advised two hours in advance.

I was greeted instead by a scene of total desertion. Despite arriving in peak season at an airport in relatively close proximity to central London, there was not a single other passenger waiting to check in their bags before me. Fearing a public emergency I approached the desk with some trepidation only to discover that this situation was routine and my flight would be departing as normal. After an hour lounging in the airport's mostly empty bar, I joined the short queue for the plane and took off wondering where exactly this airport capacity crisis we'd heard so much about had disappeared to.

Because the truth is that the UK's real airport crisis is not really about capacity but about how that capacity is used. There are already more than enough runways in the UK to get every British citizen wherever in the world they would like to go. What we don't have is the public transport network required to get them to those airports quickly and easily.

So instead of spending up to £20 billion compounding the problems at Heathrow, why not spend it instead on improving public transport connections to all those cavernous airports currently laying half empty? This would benefit not only those people who use the airports, but also all those who live and work daily in between them.

Unfortunately this is not a suggestion that is currently even been considered. The release yesterday of the Airport's commission's latest reports into proposals to expand Heathrow or Gatwick has instead compounded the false assumption that the UK desperately needs more runways.

But before we decide to pour billions more pounds into one of two overflowing buckets, we should at least take a look at all those many other half-empty buckets we still have laying around the room.

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