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Last modified: 01 April 2015

Six reasons why Heathrow is not the UK's hub airport.

The data that proves it, why it matters, and why I might be wrong.

1. You can't get a train there.

You can get a train to Heathrow from just one UK city; London. You can get a direct train to Manchester Airport from almost every city in the North of England, a good chunk of North Wales, and the two biggest cities in Scotland. There's even a tram from Manchester Airport to most parts of Greater Manchester if you want to get a proper Eccles cake before you fly.

2. You can't fly there.

From Heathrow you can fly to seven places in the UK. From Manchester you can fly to thirteen. It's hardly a hub airport if you can't use it as a hub is it?

3. It's not very good.

Manchester may be better connected to the UK than Heathrow but there's an airport that easily beats them both! You can fly from Amsterdam Schiphol airport to a whopping twenty-four airports in the UK! You'll soon be able to get a train there from London too. They speak great English, the liquorice is delicious, the airport is efficient, and you can buy tulip bulbs while you wait for a connection.

4. Because the UK uses Schiphol not Heathrow to connect to the world.

The best option to fly to the world from most places in the UK is to fly via Amsterdam. How do I know? Data!

I used Google's QPX Express Airfare API, and looked for the "best" one-way flight, two weeks in advance, from 15 airports in the UK & Ireland to 17 airports I selected around the world. This is the script (PERL) that I used to do it. Here are the results in a spreadsheet.

The important point is that in the majority of cases, the best option was a flight via Schiphol.

For points 5 and 6, for Mancester and Heathrow, I did a further search where I asked Google to find slightly faster flights, even if they cost a lot more. These points are called Heathrow (fast) and Manchester (fast) respectively.

5. Because it's cheaper to fly to the world via Amsterdam.

A big airport with lots of flights means lots of competition so I wasn't surprised that the cheapest flights are from Heathrow. What did surprise me was that flights from Manchester are just a few £s more. In fact they're cheap enough to tempt almost all passengers from Liverpool, Leeds, and Sheffield to jump on a train to Manchester and never enough to push them to travel via Heathrow. And guess where half of the flights from Manchester go via? That's right, Amsterdam!

6. Because it's quicker to fly to the world via Amsterdam.

The UK city with the fastest connections to the world? Norwich. That shouldn't surprise you by now, because it's the closest airport to Amsterdam. Of course you can get places a bit faster from Heathrow if you're willing to spend a lot more money, but it's not that much quicker. Again Heathrow has slightly faster flights but they just aren't worth most of the UK's time travelling to, especially once the fast option from Manchester is in the mix.


Why have I done this?

This issue gets to the heart of what we must fix if we are to preserve the United Kingdom as a strong and united country. Sadly, the only people covering Heathrow's national role are the BBC (in London), the national print press (in London), and the Airports Commission (in London). This is leading to a lot of great answers, and some awful answers, to the wrong question.

Heathrow is a national asset in the sense that the hub and spoke model of UK air transport with Heathrow at its core was decided during an era of nationalisation. When the airport was privatised it was sold at a huge discount in return for a system whereby flights from Heathrow are subsidised by pegging landing charges at well below the market rate.

This is a subsidy from the poor North of England to the rich South. It may be sensible; I am very tempted by the argument that the UK was, and may even still be, best served by a single huge airport of global significance than by seven medium-sized airports of no global note. This is the "dividend of Union" we started to discuss in the UK thanks to Scotland's referendum. But we must also discuss the other side of that dividend and whether the bargain that parts of the UK away from the capital are making is being honoured.

For the past few months Heathrow has been spending a lot of the subsidy it gets from Northern taxpayers on adverts in the North of England. I've seen them in Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool. They've bought so many impressions in online local media that on one day recently I noticed that three of eight adverts in the Yorkshire Evening Post were adverts for Heathrow's expansion.

I think that Heathrow airport should expand. But I also think that London should decide. Like many in the North, I resent London telling me what to think. I doubly resent paying it to do so.

As a nation we need to be honest about what Heathrow represents and what kind of imbalances it causes. Far greater than the public spending its expansion will require in the already over-funded South is the imbalance in where the £100bn of predicted growth that it creates in the UK economy will acrrue. We know that the South will benefit far more than the North. That is fine. But we must acknowledge that, and redistribute those gains. That means far more Southern money flowing North in return for our sacrifices and the beginning of a much more respectful and honest debate about both the dividends and the costs of Union.

Why I might be wrong.

Freight. Data about passenger flights is publicly available for a small fee; I spent less than £20 in API costs getting the flights data I present here. Data about freight is harder to find, and more expensive to buy. I can't afford it.

Someone who can afford it is Chris Giles at the FT and he thinks that "Heathrow holds key to UK trade revival". Chris is an excellent journalist and I don't think he's any more biased towards London, where he lives and works, than I am towards the North of England, where I live and work. He spent time looking at this and he thinks Heathrow is the answer.

Two points in his favour are that Heathrow deals with the vast majority of the UK's air freight and that the vast majority of that air freight travels underneath the seats of the wide-body jets that fly out of Heathrow airport. The small jets that fly between Amsterdam and the UK's airports carry less cargo. He may be right, I'd love to have a chat about it, but until then here are three reasons why I disagree.

1. Economics. Yes, wide-body jets that fly long routes from Heathrow carry more cargo per person than the narrow-body jets that fly short routes from the UK's airport to connect to Amsterdam. But if the Heathrow approach was much more efficient it would be much cheaper to fly from Heathrow than from Manchester airport. I've shown that the difference is tiny.

2. There are lots of long-haul destinations from Manchester. Wide-body jets fly from Manchester to hubs in America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East where cargo can be forwarded. A new direct flight from Manchester to the world's largest cargo hub in Hong Kong starts next year. There are even big jets flying from smaller airports like Newcastle and Glasgow direct to Dubai once or twice per day. When I heard the CEO of Newcastle City Council Pat Ritchie speak at the recent Northern Futures conference in Leeds she was overjoyed at the boost this had given her region's exports. She seemed like a very smart woman.

3. Moving air freight from most locations in the UK to Amsterdam or Paris is not much more difficult than moving it to Heathrow. For rail freight the Eurotunnel connects the UK to Europe. For lorries there are regular ferries to Holland from Newcastle, Hull, and Harwich.

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