In research commissioned by Virgin Atlantic and revealed this morning, the British public has shown its full support for increased competition at London’s Heathrow airport. In the survey, more than half of respondents (57%) said they wanted more choice of airlines at Heathrow, supporting Virgin’s claim to more slots if the third runway goes ahead.
Two thirds would choose Heathrow
The research, conducted by Populus on behalf of Virgin Atlantic, found that many UK passengers are currently heading out to European hubs in order to connect with long haul destinations, rather than using the UK’s own hub airport at Heathrow. 36% of connecting passengers had used airports such as Madrid or Frankfurt rather than Heathrow.
This was due to both the lack of connections between local airports and Heathrow, and because it was often cheaper to fly to a European hub and connect on from there. This notion is supported by KLM, who recently said the UK was still one of its biggest markets. Funneling customers through Schiphol to international destinations has been a lucrative market for the Dutch carrier.
However, the research also highlighted that there is a lot of public enthusiasm for using Heathrow. Almost two thirds (59%) said they would choose a Heathrow connection rather than a European hub, if the connection existed. This suggests that by opening more competition, more passengers would use the west London airport.
CEO of Virgin Atlantic, Shai Weiss, commented on the findings, saying,
“It’s crystal clear that the British public wants more choice at Heathrow Airport. Virgin Atlantic is best positioned to tackle the lack of competition head on, as the second flag carrier that our country so desperately needs. Change is not a choice but a necessity.”
“We have outlined our ambitions to create effective competition when Heathrow expands by proposing 84 new routes, linking domestic and European flights to international destinations, benefitting passengers through more choice and lower fares. With a third runway due to open from 2026, the government has a unique opportunity to transform competition at the airport by re-assessing the way take-off and landing slots are allocated. This once in a generation opportunity cannot be missed.”
Although these figures are encouraging, particularly from Virgin’s point of view, the sample size is pretty small. Altogether, Populus surveyed 2103 passengers between the 7th and 8th October 2019, via an online survey.
Breaking the monopoly
Overall, the survey isn’t really telling us anything we didn’t already know. The dominance of British Airways and, in particular, its parent company IAG leaves those not tied into the oneworld rewards system with very little choice at Heathrow.
More competition means lower fares, which would be a welcome relief for UK passengers already hamstrung by the UK’s high APD. Virgin has long been campaigning for a change at Heathrow, and is already on the warpath to secure more landing slots as soon as they become available.
Weiss wrote a letter in June to Lilian Greenwood, chair of the government’s Transport Select Committee. In it, Weiss said the current rules around slot allocation give IAG an effective monopoly at London Heathrow. This is supported by recent research that found 18.5m passengers are traveling on 77 routes that have no competition to IAG’s dominance.
With the rebrand of Flybe bringing Virgin a new means of funneling passengers to its hub airports, gaining a greater presence at Heathrow has never been more important. However, with the construction of the third runway still more than a year away from beginning, and operational status not expected until 2026, Virgin is still playing the waiting game.