A world of opportunity beneath your feet


By Mike Appleton

One thing we occasionally hear from the people who oppose Heathrow’s growth is ‘I don’t use Heathrow’. Whilst this is obviously intended to give the impression that they don’t feel they receive any of the benefits of Heathrow, it is almost always completely untrue.

Of course it is perfectly possible that someone might not physically go to the airport and get on an aircraft to meet with clients or to go on holiday, but to say that you don’t use the airport is simply not the case.

Many people understand that much of our fresh produce like fruit and vegetables comes from warmer climes, but you’d be surprised at the key role that Heathrow plays in keeping the economy moving, and the vital role it plays in the lives of those in need.

Pharmaceutical companies use Heathrow to send vital drugs and vaccines around the world. In 2012 one airline alone sent 31 million vials of vaccines through Heathrow, with the UK exporting £2 billion of their vital products through the airport. Pharmaceuticals are typical of the small, valuable and urgently needed cargo that is shipped by air.

Nothing can be more urgent than cargo that can save lives. Whether it is human organs on their way to save lives or aid to disaster hit areas, air freight is the only way to get vital cargo to where it is needed on time.

Yet despite this, cargo planes are pretty rare at Heathrow. Only a small number of routes operate as cargo flights to and from the airport. The majority of freight to and from Heathrow doesn’t travel in dedicated cargo flights, instead it flies under our feet. The millions of people who rely on this ‘belly hold’ freight value Heathrow for the same reason that passengers do, the network of routes that serve the hub airport.

Getting HIV drugs from Nairobi to Newcastle or from Aberdeen to Addis Adaba requires a hub airport to make the journey viable. The day to day deliveries to provide us with the produce that we consume and the products we rely on to go about our daily lives rely on the hub model to make these deliveries cost effective. It is only by funnelling traffic, passengers and freight through one central point that makes it possible to connect many global destinations that can’t sustain a single point to point connection.

Gatwick is not a hub airport. It relies on holiday makers and low-cost airlines for the majority of its passengers. With very few exceptions, low cost operators focus on providing passengers with cheap flights for holidays, not business or manufacturing destinations. For this reason, Gatwick’s operators do not put as much focus on their freight operations. Put simply: Gatwick doesn’t do freight. In 2012 Heathrow processed 1.5 million tonnes of freight through the airport compared to 0.1 million tonnes at Gatwick. Even Stansted processed more freight that Gatwick, although this is mainly through dedicated operations to major cargo centres.

Expansion at Gatwick without growth at Heathrow will only serve to make the UK less well connected for both passengers and the freight under their feet. Gatwick is a great airport to get to Malaga or Majorca, but it can’t help the UK to get machine parts from Leeds to Lahore.

People often don’t realise that air freight is vital to the UK economy: it accounts for around 40% of the UK’s exports and imports, worth around £400 billion per year. Heathrow is the lynch-pin in the UK’s air freight industry with a phenomenal 86% of UK air freight passing through the airport.

A logistics manager for a major pharmaceutical manufacturer summed up the problem when he told the Freight Transport Association, “We need Heathrow and we need it to be a primary hub. It is essential that it receives investment for a new runway because we will start to lose airlines and services to other countries where the hub airports are getting investment and slots are not under so much pressure.”

DHL, ASDA and Ford are just three of the many companies supplying services to manufacturers and UK residents that have expressed concerns about the capabilities of Heathrow given the current capacity squeeze. All understand the value of a successful hub airport to their business models and to the UK economy.

The Heathrow debate is often viewed through the lens of west London or the aviation industry. Looking at the enormous positive impact that Heathrow has on millions of lives every day shows that the fight for Heathrow’s future is far from regional. This is a national issue of national importance, but it will take local people to fight for it.