Meet the demands for air travel, but do it with existing resources, the UK Government has told airport operators in the country's busiest region, London and the south-east. This may be beyond them, however. The signs are that air-traffic control may be able to cope, but that airports may not be able to deliver the necessary capacity.

Most official forecasts show an overall doubling of demand for airline travel within ten to 15 years. If the predictions are correct, capacity figures supplied by the airports suggest that the south-east region will not be able to keep pace with demand. If the market takes 15 years to double, then adequate capacity beyond that allowed under Government restrictions can be achieved only by expansion at Stansted. Passengers may fly to airports outside the region, however - for example, international and domestic passengers arriving at London Heathrow or Gatwick for connecting flights may, by then, fly direct to their destinations, or go to other European airports for connections.

Various Government-commissioned studies have examined the issue over the past decade. These, according to a UK Parliamentary Transport Committee in May 1996, consist of "-a collection of documents which, on the Government's own admission, does not constitute a neat, clearly presented framework". In other words, there are no guidelines where, in the committee's opinion, there should be a definition of "the national interest with regard to airports and aviation policy".

It was the Transport Committee which judged, from industry evidence and economic forecasts, that passenger demand will double within ten to 15 years. On today's figures, however, there is potential left for a maximum of just 26% in airport capacity in the south-east.

If London Heathrow's Terminal 5 plans are cleared, potential passenger-capacity will increase to about 55%, although some planners in the industry believe that the extra passenger-handling capacity cannot begin to come on-line until 2010, and that the Terminal 5 project will not deliver the full estimated 26 million-passenger capacity until 2015. Airport owner BAA predicts, however, that the new terminal will be handling passengers by 2004 or 2005.


Key to expansion

Terminal 5 is the key to Heathrow's expansion in two respects: BAA figures show that the airport's terminals already handle 3.1 million passengers a year more than the 54 million theoretical capacity. Heathrow is close to its maximum air-transport movement (ATM) capacity which is limited, not by runway slots, BAA says, but by ramp space. Terminal 5 would provide all the passenger-handling capacity and ramp space which Heathrow's runways could serve. The Government has ruled out another runway, so BAA's only solution is to improve the average number of passengers per ATM and squeeze more capacity from its terminals.

If London-area air-travel demand is set to double in less than 15 years, the pressure will hit Gatwick first, because it has the greatest capacity for passenger growth. Its terminals, with some modification, could handle 15 million passengers more than the 25 million a year it now processes. Gatwick, however, is seeing its scheduled traffic grow rapidly, and scheduled traffic is a less-efficient user of runway capacity than Gatwick's traditional charter traffic because it moves fewer passengers per ATM and is more departure-time sensitive.

Gatwick's single runway has a theoretical capacity of 300,000 ATMs a year, but its aprons can accommodate a maximum of only 278,400. In 1996, operations showed only 206,896 ATMs, which means that the airport has a theoretical capacity for 93,000 more, given extra apron space. Such maxima, however, can never be realised in practice because of airline-scheduling requirements and unpredictable last-minute mishaps such as those resulting from aircraft becoming unserviceable.

For Gatwick to develop its passenger-throughput by the full potential 15 million would mean that aircraft size would have to increase, and that load factors on the aircraft would have to remain high, or rise.

London Stansted is next in the firing line, as it can take the largest amount of traffic growth after Gatwick. Stansted's 1996/7 passenger throughput was just under 5 million, which is 3 million short of its existing cleared capacity. That figure, however, is artificial, having been set by the Government, and owner BAA believes that it will be easy to renegotiate upwards. The airport has planning permission to develop its terminal to a capacity of 15 million. If Heathrow Terminal 5 does not go ahead, it is almost certain that the Government's artificial constraint on Stansted's capacity would be rapidly reset, possibly trebling to 24 million.

Stansted was judged in two of the studies among the Transport Committee's so-called "collection-of-documents" to be the best place for the south-east's next runway.

London Luton's figures for 1996/7 have increased sharply on the previous year. The airport's scheduled traffic showed a 129% increase, bringing it to more than 1.4 million passengers - more than half the year's 2.6 million total passenger throughput. Forecasts for the current year put the total passenger figure at 3.5 million, says chief executive Frank Pullman. This radically alters traffic balance, swinging it away from the seasonal, relatively unstable, business of leisure-industry charters.


Low-cost success

The reason for the huge scheduled-traffic increase is the success of two relatively new Luton-based airlines, Debonair and easyJet. Both are low-cost airlines, as is Irish operator Ryanair, which also operates a high proportion of its UK services into Luton. These illustrate a trend towards low-cost travel which must affect the nature of UK and European air transport. Pullman forecasts: "In the future, there will be the brand leader and the lowest-cost operator in most markets. We have been fortunate in attracting easyJet and Debonair."

He ascribes their choice of Luton to the fact that it is far from being runway-limited and has plenty of terminal capacity. This, he says, is essential to any carrier which wants to get on with developing its business. Even though Pullman describes the airport as being "well under capacity", its runway will soon be served by a new, full-length, parallel taxiway.

Pullman's visions for Luton's future include the possibility of switching the landside operation from the airfield to the new airport railway station. The present terminal site would then be entirely airside, and the two areas would be connected by a "people-mover" system, Pullman says. This is not ofÌcially planned yet, so the maximum airport capacity with today's blueprint stands at 7 million passengers.

The airport is close to London, has a 4.5 million population in its catchment area and offers the potential of a 4.4 million-passenger unused capacity, the biggest expansion possibility in the south-east outside the BAA-owned "big three" - Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted. The next most promising is London City Airport .

London City has seen massive traffic expansion after a long period in the doldrums. The airport was born into the recession and changed ownership before it finally started to earn its intended living as the fast-track departure point to Europe for executives from London's nearby City financial centre. March figures, says City, are up 69% on the same month in 1996.

City is constrained by the scarcity of aircraft types which can use its short runway and compulsory steep approaches. That, now, means the British Aerospace 146, AI(R) Avro RJs, the Fokker Jetline range and several turboprop commuters. It is also restricted by statute to a maximum of 36,500 movements a year, but hopes to raise this. Capacity, at current growth rates, will soon become an issue, because ATMs amounted to 26,000 for the calendar year 1996.

There were no problems in handling the 727,600 passengers which used the terminal in 1996, the airport management says, but this is to be increased by improving the internal design. The theoretical maximum throughput, says City, will be constrained only by the size of aircraft used and the load factor.

BAA-owned Southampton Airport is targeting domestic and European scheduled travellers who want a no-hassle departure point, says chief executive Colin Hobbs, who reports an 8% growth rate in passenger traffic in 1996 over the previous year. The 1996 total was 560,000, and Hobbs predicts that the airport, with a catchment area of "2.5 million fairly wealthy people within 1h driving time", will be handling more than 1 million passengers by 2005.

The existing terminal, which was opened in 1996, could handle the forecast traffic to 2005, and runway-slot limits are no problem. Further growth would demand more ramp space, however. Unless Southampton's fortunes beat the forecasts, therefore, it will contribute only 440,000 new departures to the south-east's total in the next eight years.


Bournemouth growth

Nearby Bournemouth International has more charter than scheduled departures. Although it now handles fewer passengers than Southampton, with 165,000 in 1996, its year-on-year growth rate has been 33%. The predicted traffic is 250,000 for 1997, and 500,000 by 1999, when a new terminal will open.

Southend suffers from being 70km (43 miles) east of London and from being in Stansted's catchment area. Airport director Roger Campbell acknowledges that he will have to wait for London City to run out of capacity before his figures start climbing back to where they were before the late 1980s.

The south-east will find spare capacity today at Southend, but, like the other airports outside the "big three" - and possibly Luton - the region will not find its salvation there. Forecast demand in the south-east of UK will not be met, raising the spectre of passengers bypassing it or looking to other transport forms.

Source: Flight International