In recent months there have been many newspaper headlines concerning the record passenger numbers passing through Heathrow Airport. Given the parlous state of the European and North American economies, this seems very suprising.
It appears that most of the growth is accounted for by business trips. Travel to/from Europe seems to be on the increase. Long-haul passenger numbers have also risen, but domestic demand is down.
These changes may relate, in-part, to alterations in service patterns. Demand for trans-atlantic travel seems to be strong. There are reports of increased demand for travel to Brazil, Russia and China. It appears that some airlines are starting to reinstate flights that had been withdrawn during the worst of the recession.
So, one might ask whether there been a corresponding reduction in demand at other airports in the south-east. There seems to be some evidence of lower throughput at Stansted. However, Gatwick’s owners report impressive growth in throughput in the past 12 months.
It is notable that air cargo tonnage at UK airports has recently gone into decline. This is more in-line with expectations, given the economic climate.
So, what is behind the counter-intuitive trends in air passenger numbers ?
- It is likely that UK passengers travelling for leisure are booking seats at the last minute and getting very low prices. So, although passenger numbers may increase, revenue for operators may be down.
- The weakness of the pound against the dollar will have attracted passengers from the United States.
- It must be remembered that a high percentage of the users of Heathrow actually use its Hub facilities to change flights without entering the UK. It would be very interesting to know whether these numbers have increased.
- Improvements to terminal facilities at Heathrow may have made some contribution.
- Perhaps these numbers also reflect our two-speed society where the professional elite – those in the top income bracket – have maintained their jobs and their spending power in spite of the harsh economic climate.