London Heathrow Terminal 5. Photo: LHR.

LONDON — While Flybe declined to comment on what it described as ‘speculation’ over any introduction of Heathrow routes, the carrier did not issue an outright denial. It added only that “Such decisions lie wholly within the remit of the slot allocator. However, any commercial operation would require attractive charges to be offered by London Heathrow.”

Airways understands that Heathrow’s level of charges would have to be reduced substantially before Flybe would consider it viable to operate there.

Currently, Flybe operates into no fewer than four other London airports – Gatwick, Stansted, City and Southend – but not the capital’s main hub.

Flybe has a strong feel of 50+ De Havilland Canada Dash 8 aircraft. (Credits: Roberto Leiro)
Flybe has a strong feel of 50+ De Havilland Canada Dash 8 aircraft. (Credits: Roberto Leiro)

Over the past three decades, the number of domestic services operating into Heathrow has steadily declined. British Airways (BA), the national flag-carrier, flies from Heathrow to just eight domestic destinations.

Admittedly, the UK is a relatively small place: in area, it is roughly half the size of France and slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. This means that many major cities are more easily accessible by train than air. Traveling the 160-plus miles from London to Manchester, northwest England, for example, takes just over two hours by rail. Cut out the time you have to allow for going through airport security and waiting for your flight and it’s probably faster and easier to let the train take the strain.

Only when heading over the Irish Sea to Belfast or north to Scotland (where four of those eight domestic destinations are located) does flying really become a time saver.

Since BA swallowed British Midland International (BMI) in 2011, there has only briefly been competition on domestic routes to Heathrow, much to the chagrin of regional passengers. As part of the price it had to pay for acquiring BMI, competition authorities at the European Commission insisted that BA make available around a dozen ex-BMI slot pairs to any airline wishing to get into Heathrow from the UK’s regions.

The only airline to take advantage of this so far has been Virgin Atlantic with its short-lived Little Red operation, which flew to Heathrow from Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen from spring 2013 using Airbus A320s wet-leased from Aer Lingus.

Virgin hoped that passengers would transfer at Heathrow on to its long-haul connections. However, Little Red’s load factors were poor and Virgin discovered that most passengers simply used them as point-to-point services, taking advantage of the attractive fares Virgin offered to try to lure travelers away from BA. Little Red closed in autumn 2015.

Reflecting on the failure, Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger lamented that “the totally inadequate number of slots made available by the European Commission did not deliver close to BA’s network position, even when supplemented by our own slots to fly between Heathrow and Manchester.

“The time lag between the takeover of BMI and our entering the market also meant Little Red initially faced an uphill battle to win recognition and convert customers to its services” Kreeger said.

Those ex-BMI slots are still available, and would be used by Flybe if it eventually decides to throw its hat into the ring, but small carriers with relatively small financial reserves behind them find Heathrow a tough gig.

Airport charges are high; Heathrow would much rather get the higher fees from a 350-seat Boeing 777 on long-haul duty rather than those from an 80 to 120-seat regional jet or turboprop.

And Heathrow’s notorious slot constraints mean that the airport wants to make maximum use of the two available runways, so larger aircraft are favored.

High costs – including some of the world’s highest passenger taxes – create huge barriers to start-up airlines wanting to operate from Heathrow, so it is unlikely a new airline will be set up to take advantage of those slots. A combination of those costs and the lack of slots also means that low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet are unable to start Heathrow operations.
Rather than fly into Gatwick, Stansted or City and and schlep across London to make long-haul connections at Heathrow, increasing numbers of UK passengers are heading for what has become the city’s unofficial ‘extra’ airport: Amsterdam Schiphol.

Aware of the constraints at Heathrow, KLM has steadily built up a network of flights from no fewer than 20 UK departure points to Schiphol. The system works. It will continue to do so until Heathrow gets its desperately-needed third runway. Current estimated time of arrival for that new strip of tarmac? Oh… try 2030.