Good for Philip Hammond. Once again the Transport Secretary has shown robust common sense. First he pointed out that everyone already travels at 80mph on a motorway, and that it is therefore pretty silly to maintain that it is a criminal offence to go above 70. And now he has said what needed to be said about aviation.
We cannot go on as we are, with Heathrow as the UK's major hub airport. The place is bursting at the seams. Most of our rival European airports are expanding, and have huge scope to go further. Heathrow is running at 99 per cent capacity. That means you spend ever more time circling pointlessly in the air above London, with your ears popping and your plane burning kerosene and blasting sinful vapour trails of CO₂, while making its presence heard by the hundreds of thousands of people below. Many planes are now waiting 30 or 40 minutes in a Heathrow stack. And the weight of traffic means that taxi-out time – the time taken between pushing back from the stand and actually taking off – is 18 per cent longer at Heathrow than it is at Paris Charles de Gaulle, 31 per cent longer than at Amsterdam and 40 per cent longer than at Frankfurt. Other airports have slack in the system. While Heathrow has only two runways, Amsterdam has six, Paris four, Madrid four, Frankfurt three and they are all only using about 70 per cent of their runway capacity. The result is that UK plc is simply missing out.
China's biggest airline, China Southern, does not serve the UK because there aren't enough slots at Heathrow – which is one of the reasons that it is not as easy for British business people to get to China as it is for our competitors on continental Europe. Every week, there are 17,500 seats on planes bound for mainland China from Frankfurt; 15,000 on planes from Paris; 11,000 from Amsterdam and only 9,000 from Heathrow. It will not be all that long before both China and India have bigger GDPs than the US – and yet we are making it harder for British business people to get to the future megacities from London than from our competitor airports. If you want to fly to Chengdu, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Xiamen or Guangzhou you can get there direct from one of London's Continental rivals – but you can't get there from Heathrow.
It is not just China: we are losing out on direct flights to Latin America, Asia and Africa because of the shortage of capacity and the greater ability of other airports to try out something new. Airlines flying out of Heathrow are reluctant to risk their precious slots by testing the market for an exotic destination; and so the Continental airports pioneer the new routes to these unheard-of cities, and derive the first-mover advantage. It is not just a question of people: it is goods as well. More and more high-value goods are transported by air, with air freight accounting for 25 per cent of UK visible trade in 2005, the last year for which I can find figures. In the same year, 71 per cent of Britain's pharmaceutical exports went by air. Those exports need to reach a wide range of destinations quickly and conveniently – and that is why you need a hub airport.
People can be slow sometimes to grasp why it matters to Britain if a traveller from Miami Beach spends a few hours in a departure lounge in London on the way to Minsk. What is the value to us, people wonder, of having this person temporarily on UK soil? The answer is that it is the transit market produced by a hub airport that creates the range of destinations that makes your airport the handiest to fly from – and that makes your capital the best place to invest in; to say nothing of the many tens of thousands of jobs that a hub airport generates in aviation alone.