18 July 2011
Crossrail goes past City Airport without stopping
Brian Micklethwait

In recent weeks and months I have been exploring the area around the big old East London docks, beyond the Docklands Towers, the ones that feature in the opening credits of Eastenders, and the ones which have London City Airport in the middle of them.

Here is the relevant bit of google maps.  Zoom in a couple of times in the middle of that, and you will see the area I’m talking about.  You will see it even better if you click on “satellite”, which I have only recently learned to do.  Do that and you can see actual railway lines and actual airplanes.

My most recent wanderings around there saw me trying to find a path beside the river, starting at the north end of the Woolwich Ferry, going west.  I didn’t get very far.  I soon came upon industrial estates and jetties sticking out, places where actual work was being done, and actual transport, on the river.  (A surprising amount of freight still seems to move up and down the river these days, in among all the more eye catching and frequent pleasure boats.)  In the industrial estates pedestrians are not encouraged, although I did venture into one of them, until I got to a wall and had to turn around and go back.  As for the jetties, random pedestrians can’t get anywhere near the river near them.  Basically the Thames footpath stops.

On an earlier expedition, I had started at the same point, north end of Woolwich Ferry, and travelled East.  For a while, fine, there was a rather nice park right next to the river.  But then it again stopped.  There does seem to be an aspiration to have a continuous Thames Path in that part of London, on the north of the river as well as the south (which already has such a path), just as there is everywhere else.  But it is taking a very long to time to join up in that particular part of London.  At present the path there exists only in rather forlorn and run-down little fragments.

So, anyway, on this most recent trip going west along the river, frustrated by industry, I turned right, northwards, back towards the docks and the airplanes.  And I bumped into Crossrail.

It’s pretty hard working out where all the various railways in that part of London go, just as footpaths are also hard to identify.  Maps are not always helpful, often showing stations but not the lines between them, especially if they are in tunnels.  (Although, as I have only just now discovered, if you click on “Public transport” in Google Maps, then things like underground railways become a lot clearer.  (No, scrub that.  It doesn’t become clearer, because the blue line calling itself the Docklands Light Railway does not appear where the DLR physically is.  It merely connects the stations, like a crow flying between them.  There are separate graphics, sometimes but not always, for where the railway actually is.  Very confusing.))

Basically, there are two branches of the Docklands Light Railway, one going north of the docks, and one to the south of them and then under the river to the Woolwich Arsenal.  Plus, there is also a defunct regular railway line, that starts off on the north side of the docks, but then goes under them, and then goes along the middle of a long straight boulevard called variously (depending which side of the boulevard you are on), Connaught Road, Factory Road and Albert Road, between the docks and the river, just south of the southern branch of the DLR, and then it too disappears into a defunct tunnel that goes under the river to the south.

However this defunct railway and its defunct tunnel will soon both be funct again, because Crossrail will be making use of it.  At present, the line is a charming rural wilderness trail, fenced off, and dividing the Connaught Factory Albert boulevard down the middle.  So make up your mind good and early which side of the Connaught Factory Albert bourlevard you need to be on.

But although this means that although Crossrail will be going within a couple of hundred yards of the City Airport, which is right in among the docks to the north of where Crossrail will be, there are not now any plans for the trains to stop at this spot.  It will stop at the top left of the docks, as it were, at a station called Customs House, nearly half a mile’s walk to the airport, and it will stop on the other side of the river, but, so far as I can work out from the www, not near to City Airport.

There already is a Docklands Light Railway stop at City Airport, on the southern bit of it.  However, the DLR is, for users of City Airport, very slow and frustrating.  It takes an age to trundle its toy train way, stopping at every little stop on the way, from real London out to these docklands, which are beyond even the regular Docklands that people mean when they say that.  I imagine most users of City Airport arrive by car, typically driven by someone else.

The relationship between City Airport and Crossrail seems to have been quite acrimonious (sorry I read this on the www recently but I forget where).  The impression I get is that Crossrail is perceived by City Airport almost as a bug rather than a feature, which seems a bit strange.  It’s as if Crossrail is threatening to flood City Airport with Ryanair plebs, rather than the genteel taxi-delivered suits it now caters to.

Or, maybe all this Crossrail activity is driving up local land prices and threatening to complicate various expansion plans that City Airport has.  City Airport is certainly very busy.  Airplanes land or take off there pretty much continuously.  So I guess they figure that getting yet more people to their airport is not their problem.  Their problem is making their airport shift more people to and from the air.

I have lots of photos of this part of London that I have taken on my various trips.  I hope to post some of these at my personal blog in the nearish future, but promise nothing.  If any such snaps do materialise, I will put a link to them here.

12 July 2011
Landing on Barra beach (provided the tide is out)
Brian Micklethwait

A friend recently journeyed to the Hebrides, for one of those team-bonding, business-building get-togethers.

She had an interesting journey.  If, like me, you like small airports, you’ll love Barra.  It’s a beach with a bungalow on it!  Well, a bit more than a bungalow, but not a lot more.

So, presumably you can only land when the tide’s out.


The schedule is still governed by the ebb and flow of the tide …

Here’s the plane she rode in on, on the beach, snapped with her iPhone:


It’s a British European de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, or so I presume.  I like these obscure planes you’ve maybe not heard of, that do so much of the quiet donkey work in the world’s out-of-the-way places, of which, I surmise, there are a very great many.

Here’s a video of the same (or an extremely similar) plane landing at Barra.

And here’s an iPhoto my friend took from inside her plane, of that bizarre propeller effect that you get with mobile phone photography of propellers:


It’s fun the first few times you see this.  Ah the romance of propellers.  It’s like there are still real steam trains everywhere, rather than just pretend ones for tourists and for weekend loonies to play with.

26 June 2011
A trip to Brittany – and more ruminations on Dreamliner World versus A380 World
Brian Micklethwait

I recently spent a week in Brittany (see various postings here, staying with friends who live in the city of Quimper, which at the south west end of the Brittany peninsula, just before you get to the final southern tip.

I’ve stayed with these friends before, and on every trip before this latest one, I’ve flown Ryanair from Stansted to Brest, Brest being about an hour by car north of Quimper.  But the bad news is that Brest airport has recently constructed a swanky new Norman Foster type building, with lots of sloping glass and metal struts everywhere and a general absence of rectangles.  Somewhere in among all these new arrangements, there was a fight with Ryanair, the upshot of which was that Ryanair no long does flights from Stansted to Brest.  Strangely, though, Ryanair still does flights from Brest to Marseilles.

I’m guessing that this either has to do with money or with time, or perhaps a bit of both.  Maybe Brest airport wants to be paid more, or Brest itself wants to pay less, for Ryanair flights to and from London.  Or, the new airport arrangements mean that Ryanair can’t turn its planes around as quickly as it used to be able to.

Also, you can’t help suspecting that perhaps Brest built itself a posh new airport terminal because it wants a better class of persons to come to Brest from London, and from many other classy spots, and the dribble of Ryanair riff-raff to stay away.  Maybe some day soon there will again be flights Brest/London flights, but more expensive ones, containing richer and better dressed persons.  But those are just guesses.

Anyway, whatever may have caused the Brest/London Ryanair flights to end, for this latest visit I had to go from Stansted to Dinard, which is the airport of the port city of Saint Malo, which is at the other end of the Brittany peninsula, to its north west, about four hours drive from Quimper.  Very tiresome.  My hosts kindly collected me from there on the way.  And on the way back, I and Mrs Host were both going to London, so we went by train from Quimper to Saint Malo (changing at Rennes), and then took a bus to Dinard and a taxi from Dinard to the airport itself.  All very cumbersome.

It did give us a chance to wander about in Saint Malo, which was good, and I got to go by train in France, which I’ve not done for decades, unless you count Eurotunnel trips to Belgium, Germany, etc.

While we relaxed in the small bar at Dinard airport, Mrs Host and I agreed about how agreeable these small airports are, compared to huge designer cattle shed airports like Stansted, and such as Brest seems now to want to be.  Mrs Host reminisced about a cheep and delightfully informal flight she once took from a tiny airfield in Kent, to a similar airport not very near to Paris, for about £45 in about 1990, in a propeller driven plane.  Our preference was confirmed hideously when we got to Stansted, at about eleven o’clock at night, to find ourselves at the back of a vast hoard of incomers to London, waiting while too few people indolently looked at everyone’s passport.  Were they seeking a terroristic pin?  If so, we were the haystack.  It was bank queue hell multiplied by a hundred.  Actually, it was over rather sooner than it at first looked like it would be, but first impressions were deeply unpleasant, and are hard to forget.

This experience makes me think that the long-term future of air travel is lots of small airports rather than a few big ones.  The big ones can’t get any bigger, or nastier.  And the bigger the big airport planes (I’m thinking A380) get, the naster it will get to use these airports.

Dinard airport, meanwhile, was a delight.  It’s not quite just the one shed.  An architect was involved at some point in making the ugly boxy building where you congregate, but this feels more like a railway station than an airport, and what is more a railway station that is quite a bit smaller and more relaxed than, say, Rennes railway station.  Dinard airport is small, and shows no sign of wanting to get any bigger.

Indeed, if that bar we relaxed in is anything to go by, they positively glory in their smallness.  There are pictures there of old airplanes, with propellers, and of people in goggles posing in black and white or sepia in front of byplanes.  There were things like this ...:


… and this:


Boeing having bet their farm on the Dreamliner, a two engined go-anywhere improvement on the now ubiquitous Boeing 737 (which is what Ryanair now uses for most of its flights, including all my Brittany trips).  Airbus have bet their farm on the A380, a four engine enlargement of the Boeing 747.

In the short run, maybe Airbus have a point.  If the current question is: How can we get more cattle through the big cattle shed airports?, then the A380 may well be the answer.  And if the question is: How can we give more legroom to more money-no-object globetrotters, trotting globally from one huge financial centre to another?, ditto.

But what if, in the longer run, the question turns into: What’s the best way to get little clumps of people, inexpensively, from a small airport somewhere in the world but nowhere in particular (like Dinard or for that matter Quimper, which also has a small railway station type airport) to another small airport somewhere else in the world, for the tiny number of people who want that particular journey, yet who don’t want to be treated too much like a herd of cattle?

Maybe if you run the air passenger business, and run airports, the first two questions are what you now obsess about.  But speaking as a passenger, I can tell you that I greatly prefer the latter question.

I want a Dreamliner world, rather than an A380 world.

I see that I have blogged here before about this great commercial Confrontation Of Our Time.  In that earlier posting I quoted someone saying this:

How would you like to line up at customs having just gotten off the back of the second or third A-380 to arrive? Would passport control take longer than the flight?

Exactly.  What I feared was going to happen at Stansted on the night I passed through this week, would happen, at a truly mega-airport like Heathrow, for real.

I could ramble ever onwards, but instead I will say: over to Michael Jennings for more detailed answers to all of my questions, and for many more facts to back up or contradict my speculations.

09 April 2011
Don’t miss Michael’s rant about airport security
Brian Micklethwait

And about how, as a consequence of airport security, he missed his flight to Italy yesterday.

12 February 2011
Allister Heath on why banks should go bankrupt in the same way that airports do
Brian Micklethwait

Buried in the middle of this excellent piece by Allister Heath about the top ten causes of the banking crisis is a fascinating point (number 3) about transport (and also energy) infrastructure:

3) There was no bankruptcy code for failed multinational banking groups. Regulatory stupidity meant that they were treated like ordinary firms: the choice was either a disorganised collapse, or a bail-out. Other network industries – airports, nuclear plants – have long operated under special bankruptcy codes, ensuring an orderly wind-down and handover of assets. Unlike every other private businesses, big banks knew they would never be allowed to go bust. So they took too many risks and leveraged themselves to the hilt, to maximise returns on capital (and hence profit and pay); while lending criteria were slowly loosened.

I thought that was interesting when I read it.  Antoine Clarke picked up on this point also.  “I never knew that” says Antoine.  Me neither.

So, what are those “special bankruptcy codes” that are in place for big airports (I’m guessing not for all airports), but not for big banks?  Anybody know about that?

It’s an important issue, because the fact that airports, railway networks (and energy supplies) must be “protected” by the government - must, basically, be kept going no matter what - is one of the big arguments against the private ownership of such enterprises, with all the competitive benefits that this brings to customers.  Maybe it isn’t true that such things “have to be kept going”. But almost everybody thinks it is true.  So that opinion has somehow to be separated by libertarians like ourselves from the argument about private ownership.  That hasn’t happened with banks, but has with airports.  How?

20 December 2010
Boris blames everybody else
Brian Micklethwait

Mayor of London, Boris Johson:

Well, folks, it’s tea-time on Sunday and for anyone involved in keeping people moving it has been a hell of a weekend.  Thousands have had their journeys wrecked, tens of thousands have been delayed getting away for Christmas; and for those Londoners who feel aggrieved by the performance of any part of our transport services, I can only say that we are doing our level best.

Almost the entire Tube system was running yesterday and we would have done even better if it had not been for a suicide on the Northern Line, and the temporary stoppage that these tragedies entail.  Of London’s 700 bus services, only 50 were on diversion, mainly in the hillier areas.  On Saturday, we managed to keep the West End plentifully supplied with customers, and retailers reported excellent takings on what is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

We have kept the Transport for London road network open throughout all this.  We have about 90,000 tons of grit in stock, and the gritters were out all night to deal with this morning’s rush.  And yet we have to face the reality of the position across the country.

It is no use my saying that London Underground and bus networks are performing relatively well – touch wood – when Heathrow, our major international airport, is still effectively closed two days after the last heavy snowfall; when substantial parts of our national rail network are still struggling; when there are abandoned cars to be seen on hard shoulders all over the country; and when yet more snow is expected today, especially in the north.

Boris blames, in particular, the Met Office.  Everybody else believed them when they said it would be a warm winter.

More about the weather forecasting angle of this by me at Samizdata.

08 December 2010
What does “busiest” mean?
Michael Jennings

In response to my recent post on Japanese airports, in which I mentioned that Haneda airport had had four new runways built since 1988, Patrick left the following comment

Huh?  And there must have already been at least one to start off with bringing us up to a minimum of five.

As it happens, Haneda has closed runways as well as opened new ones, and so Haneda at present has four runways.

But Heathrow, as I understand it a vast, if not the vastest airport in the world, has only two.

How come?

I will get back to the runways in a bit, but the belief that Heathrow is the busiest airport in the world is often heard in the UK. At least it was - I don’t think you hear it quite as often as you once did. As it happens, this belief is false, and it has been false for the 25 years of so that I have been paying attention to this kind of thing. The belief seems to have its origin in a somewhat disingenuous phrasing that was often heard in the aviation and engineering press a decade or two back, specifically “Heathrow is the busiest international airport in the world”. Note the word “international” in this. What was meant was that more passengers passed through Heathrow when flying on international routes than passed through any other airport flying on international routes. The reason for this is very simple. Britain is a small island with one giant city on it, and almost all of the places one might want to fly to from that giant city are in other countries. Domestic services make up a significant percentage of services from every other major airport in the world, but from Heathrow the percentage is miniscule. (In addition to this, for another reason that I will get to in a bit, a significant percentage of those domestic routes that do fly from London tend to be from airports other than Heathrow). Therefore, although more international passengers used (and still use) Heathrow than any other airport, there have always been other airports that handled more passengers in total.

However, many people have missed this distinction over the years, and have just heard it as “Heathrow is the busiest airport in the world”. (After all, aren’t most airports international airports? The phrasing of the stated statistic has often been deliberately misleading). Many people in the general media have made the same mistake, thus further spreading the misunderstanding.

As it happens, though, Heathrow is a massive airport. The most common legitimate statistic by which airports are compared is “Total passenger movements per year”. Every passenger who departs, arrives at, or passes through (transits) the airport countes as one passenger movement. By this measure, Heathrow has been number three in the world for most of the last twenty years. The only airports that have exceeded its traffic have been in the US: most notably the main airports of Atlanta (which has five runways) and Chicago (seven). In 2009, Heathrow actually moved up to number two in the world by this measure. Statistics for 2010 suggest that it will move down to number four, behind Atlanta, Chicago, and Beijing Capital, the first Asian airport to exceed Heathrow’s traffic. although Tokyo Haneda has at times been in the top five in the world.

However, although this is a useful statistic for determining how much terminal capacity is needed, this is still not the right statistic for determining how much runway capacity is needed. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, not all aircraft are the same size. An airport that hosts flights that use smaller aircraft is going to have more takeoffs and landings, and is going to need more runways. Long haul flights tend to use larger aircraft than short haul flights, and for various reasons Heathrow hosts almost all long haul flights out of London, whereas short haul flights are shared around London’s airports. (This has recently become even more pronounced with recent decisions of the EU to deregulate landing rights at Heathrow for foreign airlines, which led to most long haul traffic that had previously used Gatwick to switch to Heathrow). Plus there is a vicious circle. If runway capacity is at a premium but terminal capacity is not, and a lot of passengers want to use an airport, then airlines will use larger aircraft rather than putting on more flights. Since the opening of Terminal Five, Heathrow has been in this position. Heathrow has fewer runways than other airports. Rather than having fewer passengers use the airport, Heathrow simply hosts larger aircraft.

Secondly, there is an issue in the nature of the statistic: a passenger movemet is a passenger who starts a journey at the airport, a passenger who ends a journey at the airport, and a journey who changes planes at an airport. This last passenger is only counted once, even though he has both landed and taken off again at the same airport. Therefore, an airport that hosts lots of transfer passengers is going to have more take-offs and landings than one that is the start or the end of most journeys. As it happens, the airlines with the most dramatic hub and spoke systems in the world are the large US carriers, and their busiest airports are hubs in the middle of the US where vast numbers of passengers change planes. Due to a lack of political and airline consolidation and the preponderance of discount airlines, Europeans are much more likely to fly point to point. As it happens, the largest hub of the largest airline in the world (Delta) is Atlanta. The second and third largest airlines in the world (American and United) have hubs in Chicago. Atlanta and Chicago are still the two busiest airports by this statistic. Heathrow, on the other hand, comes in at number 12. The top six airports in the world by this measure and eight of the top nine are in the United States. With the exception of Los Angeles (which is a hub for traffic from the East Coast changing for aircraft to Asia - no such hub is necessary on the East Coast as modern aircraft can fly directly from anywhere in the US to anywhere in Europe) all of these airports are inland hubs where many passengers change from one flight to another.

By this measure, Heathrow is not the busiest airport in Europe. Paris Charles de Gaul has this distinction. This airport has four runways.

Before I bring this to a close, one more factor has to be mentioned. Not all runways point in the same direction. Some airports have runways that actually cross one another. It is not always possible to use all runways at the same time, or all runways at full capacity at the same time. An arrangement of parallel runways allows the highest flow of traffic, but this can make capacity dependent on weather conditions. If wind is blowing hard in the wrong direction, particularly perpendicular to the runways, this can reduce the number of flights possible, or perhaps even close runways completely. In places where weather is extreme and comes from unpredictable directions, having multiple runways pointing in different directions can make operations more robust to changes in weather conditions. In places where weather is less extreme and more predictable, this is not necessary. Heathrow has only two runways, but mild and predictable weather. Not all two runway airports are equal. Not all four runway airports are equal. All four runways at Charles de Gaul point in the same direction, which is a lot of capacity. Those four at Haneda consist of two pairs of parallel runways at an angle of 60 degrees to each other, meaning that total capacity is probably a little lower but robustness to changes in weather conditions is probably better. Proposals for another runway at Heathrow (theoretically cancelled by the coalition government, but they will no doubt be back at some point) are for another parallel runway, which is quite a lot of extra capacity.

23 November 2010
Junk-touching roundup
Rob Fisher

Not so long ago we were looking forward to a new era of sensible airport security. Now everyone is getting their junk touched.

This all started when backscatter naked X-ray machines were introduced in US airports recently. If you don’t like it, you can opt-out, but you get an “enhanced” pat-down. Then John Tyner coined a phrase when he told a TSA officer, “if you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested”. He is now a Legendary Internet Hero and everyone is having a go. Since then he’s made a few more posts on the subject. They are sensible and articulate. He makes a point I’ve made myself, which is that people don’t really want maximum safety at all costs. Citing an article in reason, Tyner writes:

if a plane was hijacked and crashed once per week, one’s odds of dying would be 1 in 135,000. One would be almost three times as likely to be killed crossing the street, eight times as likely to be murdered, and over twenty times as likely to be killed in a car crash. Really think about that for a second. If a plane was hijacked and crashed once per week, you would still be more likely to be killed driving to the airport to get on that plane. The takeaway from this should be that terrorism (in the air) just isn’t that common. However, it has certainly achieved its intended end, to terrorize.

He goes on to say that since 4 out of 5 people walk through the metal detector anyway, molesting the remaining 1 out of 5 doesn’t do any good anyway. It’s a lot of cost for no benefit. Oddly enough, the Daily Mail (via Angry Teen) thinks you’re just as likely to die from the radiation from the backscatter machine as to die from a terrorist attack.

Really it’s worth keeping an eye on Tyner’s blog. There are a few other articles so far in which he defends himself from various criticisms, including the old “flying is a privilege” line, in which post he analyses the situation from the point of view of his contract with the airline.

Since then, blogs have declared open season on the TSA:

  • I first became aware of the new security procedures via Samizdata, wherein we learn that Andrew Ian Dodge got his junk, and his scar from surgery, touched.
  • Eric Raymond does not want to fly any more.
  • (He thinks the real solution to air terrorism is to arm the passengers.)
  • One of his commenters links to a cartoon showing a spoof cover of a book titled “My first cavity search: Helping your child understand why he may pose a threat to National Security”. The cartoon turns up displayed in a TSA office.
  • People don’t like their children being patted down by the TSA. Angry Teen links to a video of this happening. The TSA say that the boy’s father removed his shirt to expedite the screening and no complaint was made. However, a video taken in 2008 of a three year old girl who screams “stop touching me” has resurfaced. Her father *was* complaining.
  • TSA agents don’t like being called “molesters” and “perverts”. They also don’t like feeling inside the flab creases of obese people. Imagine what it must be like for the obese people! The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler has no sympathy.
  • It’s not just fat people who suffer indgnity: One poor chap was left soaked in urine after a TSA agent broke his urostomy bag. A poor woman was forced to show her prosthetic breast.
  • All kinds of people are likely to be *really sensitive* about being groped by strangers. A rape victim reports being traumatised by the TSA.
  • Somebody is selling backscatter-machine thwarting underwear.
  • NickM at Counting Cats has a good old rant.
  • Plane full of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. They’re all carrying rifles. The TSA confiscates one soldier’s nail clippers.
  • Heresy Corner points out that since security theatre only works when everyone plays along, a large scale backlash will be a huge problem for the TSA. He also links to a story about a porn star who mocks the TSA, insisting on being examined while wearing see-through underwear. It’s the sexualisation of airport security which is fuelling the backlash, he says.
  • In a similar vein, Nate Anderson at Ars Technica suggests wearing a kilt in the traditional manner.
  • An organisation called We Won’t Fly wants people to opt-out of backscatter machines en masse.
  • Slashdot has a discussion about ways to make backscatter machines less objectionable by using computer vision. One commenter argues that planes can’t be used as missles any more, that blowing them up isn’t cost effective for terrorists, and best of all:

I don’t even think the TSA should be the one scanning the people at all, it should be the individual airlines. That way you can choose to pay for your security if you really want it, and competitive practices can find the optimal solution.

That’s all for now. I have a feeling there is going to be much more.

14 January 2009
Stopping airport expansion
Rob Fisher

Environmentalists have bought some land in an effort to stop the expansion at Heathrow.  I think they are misguided: that airport expansion isn’t really a problem for the environment.  But I do think owners of land have a right to their property.  So if the government tries to use compulsory purchase to allow the expansion to go ahead, I will be on the side of the environmentalists.

Of course, I also think that anyone should be able to buy some land and build an airport on it.  Environmentalists would disagree with me and would say that it is okay for the government to decide what people can use their land for.  So if the government wanted to be really clever about this, perhaps it could just designate the plot of land as for air transport infrastructure use only, and then fine the owners for growing vegetables on it.

07 September 2008
Terminal Five is quite good
Rob Fisher

I travelled to Rome on BA, and got to try out Heathrow Terminal 5.  Would my luggage travel with me?  Well, that story has long disappeared from the news so I could only assume so.

These modern steel and glass buildings look so much nicer than 60s and 70s concrete.

Arriving at T5
Arriving at T5

The large halls can handle large numbers of people without seeming crowded and stressful.  The check-in experience was pleasant and there was no queueing.

Checking in
Checking in

Security seemed as good as you could expect security to be: there are seats for putting your shoes and belt back on and putting all your gadgets and documents back in their correct pockets.  The departures area has plenty of shops, even a PC World to buy the gadgets you forgot to pack.  You can have coffee at Starbucks while watching the planes out of the window.  The walk to the gate is short.

Departures area and gates
Departures area and gates

Returning to the UK, you get to ride a little train.  Baggage carousels are nice and long, although there still seems to be no way of stopping people from crowding around the place where bags first appear.  For all the talk of the amazing luggage handling system, luggage takes about the same time to appear as at any other airport.

But it’s a pleasant place to arrive into.  It looks how a modern airport should look.  Visitors to London are likely to be impressed.

08 May 2008
Boris says move Heathrow to the Thames Estuary!
Brian Micklethwait

I spent the night before election day and the night of election day watching Boris Johnson get elected Mayor of London.  And I think it must have been in the rather testy TV interview he did for the BBC, after his official acceptance speech, that he said he favours moving Heathrow to the Thames Estuary.  I do as well, if only because it will make for such great aerial photos while it is being built, to say nothing of when it is finished.

I have mentioned this notion here before, although the only serious commenter on that thought the scheme nonsensical.  What I didn’t mention was that Boris is in favour of it.  So it may not go away just yet. 

Whether Kit Malthouse, the writer of the piece I originally linked to, is anything directly to do with Boris I do not know.  Ah.  At the bottom of that piece it says that “Kit Malthouse is a businessman and former Tory councillor and is standing for the London Assembly in 2008”, so I’m guessing: yes.  And I’m guessing he got in, if only because the Tories in general did so well.

Vote Conservative for better ways to waste public money!

25 April 2008
Should BAA be broken up?  (v2)
Patrick Crozier

This is a complete rewrite of version 1 which didn’t really cut the mustard.  Ah well.


It rather looks like BAA, Britain’s largest airports operator and owner of Heathrow, Glasgow and Stanstead, will be forcibly broken up.  It doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends right now1  and the regulator is starting to beat his “this is a monopoly” drum2.

I can’t say I am exactly thrilled at the prospect.  For two reasons.  First of all, there’s a rather nasty whiff of nationalism here.  I can’t help but notice that things were awfully quiet until a bunch of foreigners bought up BAA.  Secondly, forcibly breaking things up involves, well, force and I am against force3.

I am, of course, all in favour of things being voluntarily broken up, if that is what owners want to do.  Indeed, that is precisely what BAA itself did in the case of Prestwick a few years ago.  They reckoned they couldn’t make a go of it, sold it off to some people who thought they could and, hey Prestwick! (so to speak) within a few years the airport was booming4.

The fact that BAA’s owners (and, for that matter, its owners before that) don’t think the same experiment should be tried with its London airports tends to suggest that they think the airports will make more money if owned by just the one operator.  This argument cuts a lot of ice with me because I think profits are a good thing5.

However, it’s impossible to avoid the complaints.  Personally, I rather like airports, Heathrow included.  But lots of people don’t.  Terminal 5’s teething difficulties6 aside people complain about the queues, the lost luggage and the general state of repair of the buildings.  Airlines have their own range of complaints but I have never been quite able to pin down just what they are.

But let’s assume for argument that BAA is not doing as good as job as it could or is reasonable to expect.  Why’s that?  Because free market theory tends to run along the lines: “Well, if companies attempt to abuse their monopoly position all that will happen is that competitors will enter the market.”  And there are examples of this7.  So, if BAA really is doing a crap job it is either because the theory is wrong or something else is going on.

My guess is that it is more or less impossible to enter the market.  Try getting planning permission for a new airport in the South East.  With the current planning laws you can forget it8.  Well, you can but BAA might just be able to what with all its experience and contacts.  And buying up enough contiguous land might also pose difficulties9 even if I think they can be overcome. 

But maybe it’s not.  Maybe, it would indeed be impossible to build another airport in South East England.  But then the appropriate level of competition is not airports but regions.  Maybe a better airport somewhere else would draw in the investment and the people to compete with London (and in the process take BAA down a peg or two).  Of course, to do this developers would need to be able to build the buildings and infrastructure needed which again is impossible under current conditions.  But this just re-iterates the point: as far as we know it is government force that is causing the problem.

Just as an aside one argument that gets dragged up in this debate is the one about how BAA was privatised in the first place.  The argument goes that all our woes are down to the fact that it was privatised in one go.  If only the airports had been sold off one by one…  Maybe, maybe, but if it had there would have been nothing (in a free market) to stop one of those airports gobbling up all the others and creating what we see today.  The point is that markets are discovery mechanisms.  Amongst the things they discover is how many companies should exist in a given market.  My guess is that BAA is the size it is because that is the optimum size in the prevailing conditions.  If it wasn’t it would have been broken up by now.


1.  Hey, even the libertarians at Samizdata don’t have much time for it.  Or, even Jeff Randall at the Telegraph.

2.  See Gatwick and Stansted are targets as BAA break-up looms, Telegraph, 23 April 2008

3.  See What I believe, InstaPatrick.

4.  See David Farrar’s article, Freedom and Whisky, 29 May 2003.

5.  See Profits in a Market Economy, Art Carden, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 18 January 2008, in which the author makes the point that profits are good and losses bad.

6.  At least, I hope they’re teething.

7.  See Against competition regulation, InstaPatrick.  Another short one

8.  Another reason to be against planning.  For some more, see Against Planning, InstaPatrick.

9.  I am, of course, against compulsory purchase.  See Against compulsory purchase, InstaPatrick.

24 April 2008
I still don’t think that BAA should be broken up
Patrick Crozier

Earlier this week I heard (or did I read, or both?) that some commission or other (the Monopolies commission, perhaps?) had written a report saying that Britain’s biggest airport operator, BAA which owns Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead should be broken up.  It’s stifling competition or something, apparently.

This has met with almost universal approval1.  But, I don’t care, I’m still against it2.


1.  See Situation Normal, All F**ked Up by Johnathan Pearce on Samizdata.
2.  See:

Should BAA be broken up? in which I argue that, no, it shouldn’t.
The ASI was wrong in which I argue that monopolies aren’t a problem so long as you have free markets.
Against competition regulation.  This is an InstaPatrick article and is woefully short but it makes many of the same points.
What do you mean by a monopoly?  in which I argue that everything has some competition.
29 March 2008
The Terminal 5 fiasco
Patrick Crozier

By now, most readers will be perfectly well aware of the problems at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 which have led to cancelled flights and passengers being separated from their luggage.  Readers will also be perfectly familiar with the media’s calm, measured and sober reporting of the issues involved.

Glancing at the background it appears that what’s happened is that a number of small problems combined to make one big one.  The good news is that most of these are “soft” issues - to do with staffing and training and therefore reasonably easy to sort out - rather than “hard” issues - to do with the infrastructure and computer systems - which would take ages.

Terminal 5 was a massive project brought in on time and on budget.  This says some pretty good things about the people involved. 

I suspect Terminal 5 will be working pretty well pretty soon.

31 January 2008
Airport on stilts
Brian Micklethwait

Weirdness blogger deputy dog doesn’t do capital letters, but on the plus side collects strange structures and circumstances.  His latest weirdness is Funchal Airport, in Madeira, which is mostly not on the ground, but up in the air on pillars.  Lots of pillars.  It was on the ground, but was too short for comfort, and this was how they made it longer, apparently.  Underneath, there’s a big car park, which makes sense.

DD has photos of this, but the best photo of it that I found was this, on Flickr:


Whenever you find an interesting object, it’s worth looking for it on Flickr, I find.

This elaborate contraption - which looks rather like an aircraft carrier, I think – illustrates what an economic impact aviation can have on a region.  This is the trouble they are prepared to go to just to have airplanes serving them satisfactorily.  See also: Heathrow.

04 December 2007
Move Heathrow to the Thames Estuary!
Brian Micklethwait

From time to time I buy The Week, and via the latest edition I came across a piece by Kit Malthouse, saying that Heathrow should be moved.  This makes a lot of sense to me.  This was published ten days ago, but far better to link to this late rather than never.

You need two vital ingredients for a successful international airport: the right wind and loads of space. Heathrow has neither. The prevailing wind in London is westerly. Aircraft have to land into wind; so all those massive beasts (and they are getting bigger every year) have to turn in right over Central London. The noise they cause means only a limited number of flights can land before 6am or after 11.30pm. But as the residents of Wandsworth or Ealing will tell you, it only takes one plane coming over at 4am to wake you up and ruin your day.

Heathrow is also trapped. Hemmed in by the M4, M25 and the A30, surrounded by thousands of residents, our premier airport has nowhere to go and can only cram more and more into what little space is available.

Add to this some truly idiotic planning decisions from the 1950s (Who decided to put the terminals in the middle of the airfield, so the main access had to be through a tiny tunnel?) and you have what is commonly regarded as one of Britain’s greatest planning disasters.

Adding Terminal 5 and also a third runway and a sixth terminal, as the Government wants in its proposals published yesterday, will only make the airport even more of a mess and nuisance. So let’s move it.

The Thames Estuary, he reckons, is where London’s main airport should be.

The Thames estuary is only four metres deep in parts and it would be relatively simple and cheap to construct an artificial island with a beautiful modern airport on it. All the planes would come in to land over the North Sea, which would mean a 24-hour operation, with no disturbance while expanding capacity, at a stroke. In fact, the airport could easily accommodate all the flights from Gatwick as well, meaning we could probably close it too.

A bullet train on stilts or in a tunnel could link the airport to Central London in 20 minutes or so, and a branch line from the new high-speed Eurostar link nearby could connect the airport with the Continent.

Malthouse reckons that the receipts from selling Heathrow off to housing developers might even cover the immense cost of all this.

06 September 2007
Heathrow’s landing charges are capped
Patrick Crozier

I did not know that but apparently it’s true.  Which would go a long way to explaining the queues and why they’ve turned the place into a shopping mall.  Several shopping malls, indeed.  It’s awfully reminiscent of Railtrack with their station re-developments - Paddington being the prime example - and, for that matter, some of Japan’s private railways with their penchant for department stores and resorts.

If people are not allowed to make money out of their primary business they’ll neglect it and find ways to make money out of secondary businesses.

Not, that Japan’s railways neglect the train business.

Further reading

Why are Japanese trains so overcrowded?, Transport Blog, 6 February 2004.

Looking towards The Lawn at Paddington
07 August 2007
Should BAA be broken up?
Patrick Crozier
A queue

Things are not going well at Britain’s airports.  Queues so long people are missing their flights.  Millions of bags going missing.  And yellow signage.  Jeff Randall - usually as robust a free-marketeer as you get in the national press - is calling for BAA* to be broken up.

This causes me some difficulty.  I am not usually in favour of enforced competition (warning: short).  But there does seem to be a problem here.  Usually when there is a market failure it turns out that it is in fact a cunningly disguised government failure.  The railways are a good example of this.

But, if so, what has the government done to produce this fiasco?  I suspect the answer lies in planning (again), in that if you wanted to go into competition with BAA you’d have to spend the rest of your life just getting the planning permission.  But I am not sure.

Any other suggestions?

* Does BAA still stand for British Airports Authority?

UpdateIt seems that it doesn’t.  It’s one of those acronyms that has outgrown its constituent words and taken on a life of its own.

Update 25/04/08

  Version 2 of this posting is now available.