Arcadian airports

It was interesting to note this week’s reports that our big airports are losing passengers to local, less congested alternatives.

When given a choice of flights, passengers by their thousands are shunning Heathrow and Gatwick and choosing the likes of Bristol, Farnborough and LondonCity airports.

Interesting but not surprising. As anyone who has been to Heathrow will testify, negotiating what is in effect a town in its own right simply to get on board an aircraft is an experience to be avoided if possible.

Local airports offer the twin conveniences of proximity and manageable scale. Even Stansted, which is these days classed as a large airport, is a breath of fresh air compared to the horror of the mega-hub.

If travel from local airports is the future, the trend brings several implications for the world’s aerospace industry.

Most attention over the past few years has focused on the question of just how large an airliner can become. On whether the Airbus A380, rightly hailed as a miracle of modern engineering and technology, is as big as commercial aviation will go, or whether the next step will be to pack a thousand or more onto a single plane.

Big aircraft mean big airports. But if small and local is beautiful, that means aerospace will have to react accordingly. Airbus, and particularly its great rival Boeing, have identified that smaller aircraft flying greater distances from regional airports are likely to find favour with airlines and their paying customers.

And if local means long-haul, why not also short-hop? It is even possible that the much-mooted idea of very local ‘air taxis’ ferrying busload-sized contingents of passengers from city to city might become a reality.

But if we have more flights from more airports, what are the implications for noise? Those who live near Heathrow and Gatwick may have wearily learned to live with their lot, but residents near emerging regional terminals are likely to prove far less tolerant. That means the hunt for noise reduction and management technologies becomes ever more urgent, as does the control of emissions.

Another great example of how society’s changing demands push the agenda for engineers.

Andrew Lee
The Engineer Magazine & Online