Number of domestic UK flights falls 20% in decade
The number of flights around the UK has fallen almost 20 per cent in the past decade as taxes, improved train services and market economics have pushed domestic air connectivity down the aviation sector’s list of priorities.
Analysis of Civil Aviation Authority data by the Financial Times shows the number of domestic routes with more than 1,000 passengers per year has fallen from 228 in 2007 to 188 in 2017.
Domestic passenger numbers fell 10 per cent in the same period to 22.8m, according to CAA figures. By contrast, the number of people flying internationally rose 43 per cent to 229m over the same period.
Jonathan Hinkles, managing director of Scotland’s Loganair, which flies mostly within the UK, said there had been “a major loss of domestic air connectivity” with airlines “progressively closing routes one by one”. Loganair, for example, has stopped its Edinburgh-Inverness service, while British Airways, which used to fly thrice-daily from Gatwick, the UK’s second busiest airport, to Manchester, has closed the route.
Major cities in the UK still have decent air connections to London, which is the government’s priority in terms of the domestic network, but they are not always linked to each other. There are no flights, for example, between Newcastle in the north-east and Manchester in the north-west.
While there was a decline in air travel following the 2008 financial crisis, airlines and airports claim the main reason for the fall in domestic air connectivity is taxes, and particularly the air passenger duty that is payable by anyone flying from a UK airport. The tax, £13 for each economy flight, raised £3.4bn in 2017-18, up from £1.9bn a decade before.
Graeme Mason, planning and corporate affairs director at Newcastle International airport, blamed the duty for why passengers could no longer fly from the city to Birmingham, Stansted, Gatwick and Belfast City. “The UK has the highest rate of aviation tax in the world, which significantly impacts growth,” he said.
Christine Ourmières-Widener, chief executive of the airline Flybe, which was saved from insolvency at the eleventh hour this year, said: “For Flybe, [the duty] is nearly 20 per cent of the average total fare, but it could be up to 50 per cent for promotional fares.” This month, Flybe said it would stop jet flights from four of its bases and shut those at Cardiff and Doncaster, while blaming a lack of pilots for a spate of cancellations this week.
The industry is concerned at the prospect of another tax. The government-commissioned Airline Insolvency Review, set up following the collapse of the airline Monarch in 2017, has suggested a levy on tickets, which would fund the repatriation of passengers stranded abroad if their carrier failed. The issue re-emerged after Flybmi collapsed in February.
Although passengers would ultimately pay, Tim Alderslade, chief executive of trade body Airlines UK, said this was part of “a drip feed of more and more expenses on to the carrier and at some point that’s not sustainable”.
Train travel is both causing and benefiting from aviation’s discomforts. The number of “long-haul express” train journeys has grown by 40 per cent to 145m over the decade to 2017-18, according to the Office of Rail and Road, the regulator.
Guy Stephenson, chief commercial officer at Gatwick, said BA’s closure of its service from the airport to Manchester came as Virgin West Coast railway improved its service.
Broader economic and corporate trends are also diminishing UK air connectivity. For example, when Flybmi collapsed, it blamed the country’s impending departure from the EU for preventing it from obtaining flying contracts in the bloc. This was on top of the continued weak performance of the pound against the dollar since the 2016 vote to leave, which hurt because UK airlines’ revenues are generally in sterling and many of their costs, including fuel, are in dollars.
A former senior executive at Flybmi also said the cost of using the UK’s infrastructure — such as high airport charges, falling average ticket prices and competing sales outlets taking a cut of the fare — had contributed to routes closing. Meanwhile jet fuel spent most of 2018 between $80 and $90 per barrel and came close to $100 in early October; 18 months earlier it had been as low as $50.
Helping to slow the decline are government-subsidised public service obligation flights, said Robert Hough, chairman of Peel Airports, which owns Liverpool, Doncaster Sheffield and Tees Valley airports. The UK had 22 such routes and the end of last year, most of which serve Scottish islands, but the government also supports Flybe’s new route from Newquay in Cornwall to Heathrow, the country’s busiest airport.
Heathrow is one of the few airports increasing its domestic route network. Airlines have recently launched services to Leeds Bradford, the Isle of Man and Inverness in addition to Newquay, and the airport has promised 200 more flights a week to UK destinations if its third runway is built, at some point in the mid-2020s. It has also put £10m into a “route development fund” to support airlines operating new domestic routes.
“I think we are worse than we were 10 years ago,” said John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, “but better than five years ago.”