Tim Yeo, in his argument about why we should have a third runway at Heathrow, chose to focus – at least in part – on the paucity of British flights to China:
What better way to kick-start Britain’s sluggish economy than by boosting trade with China? Perhaps with Chongqing, with 28 million consumers, many enjoying rising incomes. Or Chengdu, with 14 million. Or how about Wuhan, with 10 million? We could not only boost exports – we currently sell more to Ireland than to China, whose population is 250 times bigger – but might also tap into the bulging coffers of the Chinese for some job-creating investment in Britain.
There’s just one problem: you can’t fly directly to those three cities. Getting to and from China is harder from Britain than from our competitors. Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle fly twice as many flights to twice as many destinations as Heathrow. The problem is so acute that the Chinese government is pressing for more slots at our flagship airport.
There are a number of things to point out here. One is the idea that we ought to be trading more with China than Ireland, when trade is – inevitably – geographically focused. We are, after all, far more than 250 times closer to Ireland than China (I would say we are infinitely closer to Ireland than China, sharing, as we do, a border with them, but then a mathematician might hurt me).
A second is the measurement of Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle's capacity by looking at flights and destinations, rather than simple capacity. If Heathrow split all its flights to Beijing across the 160 Chinese cities with populations over one million, it would serve more destinations, but it would also become markedly harder to get to Beijing itself.
But the thing I really want to point out to Yeo is that if we want to have more capacity, one really easy thing to do is stop flying from London to bloody Manchester.
The One World Alliance – the consortium of Airlines which includes British Airways – flies to nine British destinations from London. Two of them – the Isle of Man and Belfast – really are relatively inaccessible because of the Irish sea; but two other destinations, Paris and Brussels, are connected by a direct rail route from the capital. And that's not even getting started on all the other European destinations which are easily accessible via rail.
Obviously, an airport which carries a tiny jet to Manchester may not be able to take a 747 heading for Chengdu. But it could take a plane flying to Nice, freeing up that slot for a flight to Cairo, freeing up that slot — and so on.
What's more, Government policy is already starting to realign to this aim. HS2 will result a 170mph train service from London to Manchester and Leeds, and Deutsche Bahn will shortly begin running through services to Frankfurt am Main from Kings Cross St. Pancras. Plane travel still has the advantage of tax-free fuel, but – for now, at least – rail travel gets outright subsidies as well.
There is capacity in Heathrow, it's just being used terribly.