Wednesday 5 September 2012

My Hub Is Bigger Than Yours

The debate on where and why new runway provision might be sited in the vicinity of London is enmeshed in the short term of the question of who should lead the Conservative Party, if “lead” is the right word.  With Boris Johnson’s hair on top looking a little skimpy is the world ready for a bald Boris?

Beyond that is involved who might be the key players and where the big contracts might go.  In terms of money to be spent, it is heigh ho “investment” according to the most elastic uses of that word and a major opportunity for certain contractors.  As the notion of “the bigger the better” is the current basis of most political thinking, if only for macho reasons, there is a lot of loot to be had for all those involved.

This blog has mentioned before in other contexts that past railways were bedevilled by the retention of the old five ton trucks for shifting freight, notably coal.  Also something that created many of the problems of the 1970’s and later was the failure to realise the implications of the introduction of containers for shipping and freight.

So looking at air transport, passenger and freight, is it possible that there may be something happening out there that we have either failed to notice or failed to realise the full implications of significant changes in the offing?  We are blithely assuming that the figures go up and up and nothing can stop them.

The second is the whole notion of “hub” airports.  This may have fitted late 20th Century patterns of air movement and its management but will it do so in the future?  Also, this fits the existing pattern of nation states.  It might be one thing for Luxembourg to depend on a foreign “hub” but unthinkable for any state of any size.

Yet globalisation is about individual nation states effectively surrendering their independence to the markets and to supra-national bodies.  How many mega-hubs does Europe really need and where are they best placed?  Try asking this question around Westminster and see them all start waving their arms.

Given the location of existing major hubs on the continent, whilst Heathrow might well act as an adjacent mini-hub is it necessary to spend vast sums building another major hub to compete with those elsewhere?  But again, can there be other patterns of air service where hubs become ancillary rather than primary facilities for particular needs?

The UK is littered with airports many a short distance away from the others and most having scope for a lot more traffic.  There are additional runways available from previous military use that could be developed on a relatively inexpensive basis.  Many are close to existing rail and major road links.

If planes on major routes are going to become much bigger and with more seats whilst on other routes greater flexibility can be attained with quick smaller but long range aircraft might it be becoming possible to have a more complex provision that meets future needs instead of forcing everyone through mass facilities where every breakdown risks becoming a disaster?

A key reason being given for Boris Island in the Thames Estuary is that it avoids all the trouble and anguish of taking out a chunk of England, churches, listed buildings, villages and all.  In other words putting a lot more runway space where it is least wanted.

There is the other question of if it is a “British” hub why does it have to be sited in the vicinity of London?  This is simply hyped as no alternative because London is big and wealthy and that is where the political class is.  But it could go further away and with a good economic case for doing so given a fast frequent link to London.

My instinct is that there are things happening out there which may mean we will have to recast our thinking both on the level of demand for air travel, on the way we actually move about, and on the types of aircraft available and their capabilities.  Also we may not need to be moving freight through the same places as passengers.

Yet again, we could be making a big expensive mistake because we are missing the bigger picture and cannot make use of what we have more effectively.

1 comment:

  1. If global cooling takes hold, many of the tickets may be one way.