British Airways Chief Executive, Willie Walsh, has launched an attack on opponents of the Heathrow expansion, saying they do not understand how the global hub works.The argument that passengers who fly into Heathrow to change straight on to onward flights bring little economic benefit to the UK has recently been expressed by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, and a former BA chief executive, Bob Ayling.
But Mr Walsh said: “This argument does not bear examination - and it has been sad to see Bob Ayling, my predecessor-but-one, put his name to it.”
He went on: “This suggestion is extremely insulting to the millions of UK residents in the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland who regularly fly to Heathrow to catch connections to distant parts of the globe to win or maintain business and jobs for Britain.”
On Heathrow flights to and from Manchester, 75 per cent of passengers were transferring. On services to and from Leeds/Bradford, Newcastle and Tees-side, the proportion was between 55 and 60 per cent.
On flights to and from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, transfer traffic accounted for nearly half of all passengers.
“Try telling these legions of hard-working men and women that their value to Britain is, as Bob Ayling put it, worth ‘little beyond the price of a cup of tea’,” Mr Walsh told a conference on sustainable aviation.
He said non-UK residents who changed planes at Heathrow also made a very significant contribution to the UK economy, by maintaining routes from London that otherwise would not be financially viable.
Heathrow operated 110 scheduled long-haul routes - more than three times the total of any other UK airport. Sixty of those routes were not operated from any other UK airport.
The British Airways chief executive added: “The importance of transfer traffic is obvious. If those 60 routes were viable on the basis of demand from the London area alone, then surely someone would operate them from a cheaper, less congested airport like Gatwick? Or Stansted? Or Luton?
“But no-one does. Because they are not viable as stand-alone, point-to-point routes.
“The critical financial strength of transfer passengers means that Heathrow can offer a far bigger network of direct, long-haul services for people who want a non-stop journey from London than would otherwise be the case.
“That is how hub airports work. That is why they are able to provide the world-class range of destinations that is essential for business capitals that want to succeed in a global economy.
“That is why the other major economies of north west Europe invest in their hubs. Frankfurt has three runways and a fourth on the way. Paris Charles De Gaulle has four, and Amsterdam has five.
“All attract large numbers of transfer passengers to keep up their route networks. More than 50 per cent of Frankfurt’s passengers are changing planes. At Amsterdam, the figure is 45 per cent and at Paris 32 per cent.
So Heathrow’s 34 per cent is hardly out of line.”
Mr Walsh spoke out strongly in favour of increasing Heathrow’s runway capacity through the introduction of mixed-mode operation on the airport’s existing two runways, and the construction of a short, third runway.
The absence of spare runway capacity had caused Heathrow’s global network to shrink from 227 destinations in 1990 to 180 today. “This is a cycle of decline that must be reversed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Frankfurt offered direct flights to at least 265 destinations. Amsterdam offered 260 and Paris 223.
He also criticised the idea of improving punctuality at Heathrow by reducing the volume of flights as “an option born of complete defeatism”. He added: “We will not improve Heathrow’s global connectivity by taking out flights.”