A RECENT edition of Question Time was broadcast from Heathrow Airport's newly opened Terminal 2 building.
The decision seemed to underline the newsworthiness of any development at the UK's only hub airport, from the opening of a new terminal to ongoing debate about expansion.
However, a consultation issued this week seeks to drag the spotlight away from Heathrow and analyse the challenges and opportunities facing the UK's regional airports. The Airports Commission, the body of independent experts also charged with weighing up whether capacity in the south-east could be boosted best by a third runway at Heathrow, a second at Gatwick or the so-called "Boris Island" option in the Thames estuary, seeks the views of the public and key stakeholders on the country's regional airports.
Responses to the consultation are due by July 25. The 62-page document makes interesting reading, particularly given that Scotland boasts the second and fourth busiest regional airports in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively.
Access to Heathrow is a vital plank in Scotland's economy, both for business travellers relying on speedy links with the capital and holidaymakers catching long-haul connections. But the number of domestic destinations served by Heathrow has been declining since 1990 and is predicted to fall further by 2040 as airport chiefs look to safeguard profits by prioritising landing slots for larger, long-haul planes.
Between 2003 and 2012, the number of regional passengers transferring through London airports declined by almost 30%, though the fall was less pronounced for Heathrow. In contrast, the number of UK passengers using Dubai, a major Middle East hub, as a connecting airport increased some six-fold between 2001 and 2012. Emirates has operated direct flights between Glasgow and Dubai since 2004, allowing Scots an alternative gateway to Asia-Pacific.
Edinburgh Airport has launched direct flights with Qatar Airways to Doha, another Middle East hub, pitting Scotland's largest airports in a battle for passengers heading to Asia, the Far East and Australia. Qatar Airways in particular has a vast choice of onward connections from Doha to China, which may be the closest the Scottish Government will get for now to the holy grail of a direct link with the country.
That said, Birmingham Airport, the third busiest regional airport in the UK, is poised to launch direct flights to Beijing later this year. Increasingly it seems Scotland, along with the rest of the UK's regional airports, will have to look abroad for connectivity.
It is possible to travel direct from Scotland to destinations in North and Central America, from Toronto and New York to Las Vegas and Cancun. These connections in turn open up links to the Caribbean and South America without setting foot in London. Take Edinburgh's direct link with Toronto, launched last summer by Air Canada Rouge. This route alone allows Scots to disembark in Canada and board onward flights to Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu and Aruba.
By the time the south-east resolves its capacity crisis, regional airports might have moved on.
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