Europe’s no-fly zone

Thousands of passengers at London Heathrow airport last December were denied travel for a few days because of snow.

They were very annoyed.

Now imagine that all the passengers who turned up to fly from Heathrow for an entire year were denied travel.

Why? Because a report by London’s Mayor Boris Johnston predicts that, by 2030, demand for travel to and from London will exceed supply by 55 million passengers a year. That is nearly as many as Heathrow handles annually now. The constraint is absolute: lack of runway capacity in the London area.

London will not be alone in denying millions of would-be travellers the ability to fly.

Eurocontrol’s recent report on airport capacity has raised again the spectre of the continent’s failure to meet air travel demand well before 2030. By that year, 17% of demand will not be met for the same reason: not enough runways.

Eurocontrol’s director general David McMillan is worried that politicians have taken their eye off the ball because the current recession has reduced the pressure on airports. The new report, however, takes the recession into account.

In April last year millions of passengers all over Europe were denied air travel because of atmospheric volcanic ash. The rest of the transport infrastructure couldn’t cope and Europe became immobile. Passengers were very annoyed, and Europe’s economy lost billions.

Despite this enforced experiment in just how much aviation contributes to national and regional economies, the runways issue is being ignored.

Today the BAA-commissioned report on the snow disruption at Heathrow says disruption need not have been as bad. The main criticism was of lack of communication between the airport, airlines and passengers.

When snow comes again, disruption at Heathrow will still be bad, but passengers will be better informed about their cancelled flights. Disruption is inevitable at an airport like Heathrow that operates at 99% of capacity, because operating all flights at that level depends on good weather. The flow rate has to be reduced in bad weather for safety reasons, so cancellations are certain.

So, in the context of failing to meet the travel needs of 55 million passengers a year to and from London, the snow review is a case of fiddling while Rome burns, or maybe rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic - choose your cliche.

 Book your flights now for 2025 while stocks last.