The decentralization of UK flights from London to regional hubs

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Stephen Davis, chief marketing officer at global travel agency, discusses the scope for airports outside of London to become leading points of entry into the UK.

News of a new long-haul route at Doncaster Sheffield Airport and the building of a brand-new railway station to facilitate the airport has been welcomed by the travel industry in a bid to decentralize flights, both to and from the UK, from London airports.

The project, dubbed ‘Aerotropolis’, is set to generate £3.2bn (US$4.5bn) for the local economy, with airport passenger numbers set to increase to 4.7 million per year by 2037. This will have a profound impact on local tourism in the north of England, with local businesses set to flourish from the inbound tourism this will bring.

The growth of regional airports around the UK is essential for not only the growth of British tourism but also for tourism worldwide, and improving the infrastructure in areas that are not named London provides consumers with cheaper alternatives to flying into the capital.

Any regional airport that has international arrivals will benefit hugely from an increase in business. Just think about Americans travelling to Edinburgh, or Chinese visitors to Manchester. The result is millions of additional spend on hospitality, leisure and retail. Furthermore, the growth can only help compliment HS2 (intercity rail project High Speed 2), with the regions of the UK that it will serve becoming more accessible both to UK residents and visitors.

Whether we’ll see a decentralization of flights from London still remains to be seen, but there are positive developments. London still remains the key departure and arrival point for the UK, as it is served by five international airports – six if you include Southend – and that provides an enormous amount of choice for the consumer.

But for many UK travellers, London is not that attractive. The thought of getting stuck on the M25 or M4 is starting to put people off. We have seen the growth in low cost carriers operating out of regional airports with Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds-Bradford, East Midlands, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bristol and Southampton being most notable.

Additionally, many of the larger US legacy carriers and Middle East carriers operate regional services on a seasonal basis. There are reports that Delta and Virgin Atlantic are launching more UK regional departures this summer. Both Emirates and Qatar Airways operate regional services from Scotland and Manchester.

Ultimately, consumer preference has to be matched by airline route and network analysis. If there is sufficient demand for the route, an airline will introduce it. Regional flying is often risky for airlines as it is only point-to-point demand and doesn’t have the same passenger flow as London.

The hope is that the opening of more routes to regional UK airports will help direct people away from London to experience the amazing cities around the UK.

It’s not only inbound tourism that is set to flourish, but also outbound tourism from the UK. There has been a 69% increase in regional flight bookings around the UK (excluding London) to European destinations when comparing Q1 2017 to Q1 2018. This figure increases to 128% for transatlantic flights to the USA, 147% increase in flights to Asia and a 250% increase in flights to the Middle East. It’s clear from the data that regional hubs around the UK are having more influence on international tourism and will continue to do so.

In Doncaster’s case, it will take a while to really be considered an international hub. You can launch a regional route, but as an airline you don’t want to be the only one playing on the playground. It really needs a combined effort between the airport and airlines to make this a success.

For example, American Airlines launched JFK to BHX (Birmingham Airport) a couple of years ago and it lasted one season. It’s going to take time, but gradually, we should see greater numbers of international long-haul flights from regional UK airports at a sustained level, which will help inbound and outbound tourism.

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