September 7, 2012 7:45 pm

Transport hub or travel hell?

A five-point plan for London’s airports where passengers could connect and infrastructure works for residents

Attention all frequent flyers in and out of London. This is a special pre-boarding announcement to ensure you can make your way to and from the UK capital more swiftly in the very near future and not get tangled up in the ass-backward, political wrangling over third runways at Heathrow and airports in the stream. If you’re not familiar with the latter, it’s an architectural and engineering duet of the most fantastical scale by Bory (mayor Boris Johnson) and Normy (architect Sir Norman Foster) – rather than Kenny and Dolly – and calls for a Hong Kong-style airport to be built in the Thames estuary.

While I’m sure all passengers would like a gleaming new airport complete with four runways, it’s unlikely to happen for some 15 years. So we’ve come up with some speedier measures. If everyone follows a simple five-point plan, London can once again become a viable place where companies can base staff, passengers can connect and residents can feel proud of an infrastructure that works.

1) A good hub needs a good (great) airline. There’s little point investing in any London airport unless it has a global carrier of scale that people want to fly. At the moment, this is neither British Airways nor Virgin Atlantic. BA needs to improve its customer service and route network, and behave like a company in the business of delivering outstanding travel experiences. Virgin needs to decide what it wants to be and move out of the early 1990s. Fresh investment in airports will be a huge waste unless the UK has carriers that can properly compete with Lufthansa, those of the Middle East and the best in Asia.

2) 24-hour cities need 24-hour airports. London likes to talk a good game about being a vibrant, round-the-clock capital – it’s not. Aside from the hangover of ridiculous licensing laws that still make the city sleepy after 11pm, the curfews imposed on its biggest airport stifle its competitiveness. Heathrow needs to be open for departures and landings from at least 5am through to midnight – without restrictions. Not only would this be more attractive to carriers flying to both Asia and North America, it would give passengers better options to plan more dynamic travel itineraries.

3) You don’t all need to sit together. There’s no reason all the major alliances need to sit at the same airport. Star Alliance or Sky Team should take their business elsewhere (along with feeder carriers) and set up base at Gatwick. London’s other major airport to the south could be more attractive if a Hitachi Javelin-style train was added to the route and the journey could be made in 15 minutes. And money that might be spent on extra runways could be invested in improving the state of nearby Croydon and making it a liveable, attractive business centre fit for wooing multinationals that want easy access to departure gates and snappy connections into London.

4) Better transport for all. The government is somewhat muddled in its thinking that investment in airports alone will be the economic boost the country needs to create jobs and send out the right domestic and international signals. Nonsense. We’ll soon be having the same discussions about every other aspect of transport. Just look at a major rail interchange like Clapham Junction – it’s an outdated, crumbling, rickety mess. All of the UK’s rail network needs a serious upgrade and that means getting rid of many quaint yet outdated stations, laying new tracks, electrifying the network and adding new rolling stock. Last weekend I took a “fast train” from Brockenhurst to Waterloo and it felt like I was chugging along in a developing country – packed platforms, no seats, ancient carriages. Improved mobility by air, sea and land should be at the top of this government’s agenda. Just as you wouldn’t want to fly into an airport with outdated navigation equipment, passengers shouldn’t be subjected to roads and trains that have no place in the 21st century.

5) Eggs and baskets. More effort could be put into creating a serious alternative to London for both international businesses and residents. If Wales wants to get the world to invest and take notice then steps should be made to turn Cardiff into the UK’s Barcelona. Scotland could think about doing the same with Edinburgh. Instead of a major hub in the Thames estuary why not a second airport built off the coast of Edinburgh that follows a Helsinki type of model? Why not bring back British Caledonian and create an airline that focuses on connecting the northern half of Europe with North America and the upper end of Asia? Sorry, Manchester, but are you really an Osaka, Milan, Chicago, Rio or Shanghai to London? Improved, direct, regional connectivity will take a massive load off London, open new opportunities and stimulate regeneration for the regions.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

On the ‘fast train’ to Waterloo I felt like I was chugging along in a developing country

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