The Future of London Heathrow

Updated: Dec 3, 2019

London Heathrow is the world's busiest dual-runway airport in the world. Over 1300 daily flights in addition to more than 80 million passengers travelling through the airport every year mean that Heathrow is currently operating at a whopping 98% capacity.


Gatwick is usually the second most preferred option for airlines when operations to Heathrow are not possible due to capacity constraints. However, Gatwick is almost at full capacity as well.

Despite this, the prospect of flying to Heathrow is something that airlines across the globe desire. Hoping to begin flights to Heathrow next summer are twelve new operators which include the likes of JetBlue, Vistara, IndiGo, SpiceJet, Norwegian, Luxair and Arkia.


JetBlue

Possibly one of the most crucial developments at Heathrow in the coming years (if granted the requested slots) will be the launch of direct JetBlue services to and from the United States. The American low-cost carrier has been contemplating services to London for a while now. The airline looks to launch non-stop services from New York and Boston to London from 2021. Initially, the carrier revealed interest in both Heathrow and Gatwick, however, it seems that JetBlue has made up its mind. JetBlue has formally requested for 35 slot pairs, enabling up to 5 daily flights (keep in mind it is unlikely anywhere near this amount will be granted to the airline if any in the first place). The carrier will use the new Airbus A321LR aircraft operate the transatlantic services, featuring JetBlue's Mint and Core cabins. The airline will offer free Wi-Fi for everyone.

JetBlue's fleet of Airbus A320ceos are not able to reach London direct from the United States. Photo by AeroNewsX/Karam Sodhi.

JetBlue seeks to give passengers an affordable alternative to what legacy carriers such as British Airways offer on transatlantic services. The carrier says it will price its flights "at a fraction of what other airlines are charging today for premium seats."

IndiGo, Vistara & SpiceJet

Moving east and following the demise of Jet Airways, some of India's major airlines are preparing for some much needed international growth. With the Indian domestic sector being overcrowded, IndiGo, Vistara and SpiceJet have each revealed interest in further international growth such as the United Kingdom.


To begin with, IndiGo has requested for 42 slots, which would enable over 3 daily flights, a testament to its commitment on launching flights to London via Istanbul. Earlier in October, the airline's CEO had said that the carrier wishes to launch flights from both Mumbai and Delhi to the English capital. While it has no widebody aircraft on order, the CEO confirmed that Indigo is looking to lease several wide-body aircraft and if they got a good deal, would sign for up to 30.


However, IndiGo's request for slots has yet to be granted. With London Heathrow being one of the busiest airports in the world, getting a slot is proven to be tough. As a result, Indigo has filed a slot request with London Gatwick; and has received 14 slots. This allows IndiGo to operate daily flights.


The slot filing with London Gatwick shows that the airline intends to operate an Airbus A330-300 to New Delhi.


Not only that, but it seems that IndiGo has also been granted slots at London Stansted for daily flights to New Delhi.

Photo by AeroNewsX/Karam Sodhi.

Vistara has requested for only 14 slots which is much less in comparison to IndiGo. If granted all the slots, it would be able to operate daily non-stop flights between India and London. Vistara already placed an order for 6 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners back in 2018. The airline expects to take delivery of two of those aircraft by the end of the current financial year ending March 2020.


Vistara confirmed in a statement earlier this month: “Vistara will also get two of the six wide-body aircraft it ordered last year, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, and one Airbus A321neo between January and March 2020. With this, from 22 aircraft in March 2019, the airline will take the fleet size to 42 by March 2020."

However, Vistara has also gone to London Gatwick. It seems that both IndiGo and Vistara are really eager to start flights to London and can't afford to wait any longer. Vistara has been awarded 28 slots, allowing for 8 weekly departures. The airline filed services with the Boeing 787-9 with 299 seats.


SpiceJet does not want to lose out. India is a tough market to operate in and while proven possible, gaining market share is tough. SpiceJet has requested for 14 slots, the same as Vistara. However, SpiceJet has yet to place an order or reveal any information in regards to its long-haul expansion plans which include aircraft. It is worth noting is that the airline is also already facing disruption from the global 737 MAX grounding, of which it has 13 delivered and a further 8 or 9 sitting in Seattle.


Back in September 2017, SpiceJet did reveal interest in potential future long-haul operations. The carrier began an order contest between Boeing and Airbus for widebody aircraft. SpiceJet initially showed interest in the Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A350-1000, however, nothing has come of the order contest so far. What can we expect from SpiceJet if it is awarded the valuable Heathrow slots for next year?


Norwegian Air UK

Norwegian Air UK has been awarded 6 slots at Heathrow, allowing for three weekly flights. The struggling airline's current London operation is limited to Gatwick. It reported a USD171.5 million loss during the first quarter of this year and has announced massive cuts to its entire long haul operations, from cities across Europe. To illustrate the scale of its cutbacks, Norwegian suspended a whole 25% of its 2019/2020 winter services between the United States and Europe.

Norwegian reported a USD171.5 million loss during the first quarter of this year. Photo by AeroNewsX/Karam Sodhi.

What is important to note is that slot pairs at Heathrow are arguably the most expensive in the world. While the cost of these 3 weekly slots is unknown, it is estimated at between USD300 million and USD450 million based on previous slot transactions at Heathrow. Considering Norwegian's deteriorating financial situation, was this the right decision?


WestJet

Canadian carrier WestJet has also applied for daily flights. As of yet, no routes have been announced, however. The airline currently flies to London Gatwick from St. John’s, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, utilising the Boeing 737-700 (whilst the MAX 8 variant is grounded), Boeing 767-300s and new Boeing 787-9.


Loganair, Aurigny Air Services and Luxair

Loganair has applied for 42 new slots giving it the ability to operate 21 weekly flights. Following the demise of flyBMI, the United Kingdom as a whole saw a significant drop in regional services. Sister airline, Loganair, has stepped in to recover a number of services, including from East Midlands to Brussels, Aberdeen to Bristol and Oslo among others. Loganair's presence in the UK overall is growing. While flyBMI did not operate to Heathrow during its final years, this is simply a way for Loganair to expand elsewhere.

Photo by AeroNewsX/Anselm Ranta.

Speaking of regional growth, an airline you wouldn't expect has requested 26 new slots (13 weekly flights). Luxembourger flag-carrier Luxair, currently operates to London City Airport, offering a direct link to Luxembourg. London City Airport is located near to the centre of the English capital. The airport is, therefore, the main link for business travellers, notably those that work around the busy Canary Wharf financial district. Luxair isn't that big, operating only a fleet of only 20 aircraft, comprising both Boeing 737s and Dash 8 Q400s. The airline uses its Q400 aircraft to fly to LCY, as the runway is too short and the airport is too small to handle the Boeing 737. Could the airline be looking to replace the London City link and possibly switch to Boeing 737 operations to provide more capacity?


Guernsey-based Aurigny Air has applied for 54 slots, allowing up to 27 weekly flights. Aurigny will most likely link London Heathrow with Guernsey, building on (or possibly replacing) the carrier's current links between Stansted and Gatwick.


China Airlines & Shenzhen Airlines

Taiwanese-carrier China Airlines has requested 14 slots and if awarded, will become yet another new airline at Heathrow. China Airlines currently flies to London Gatwick with the state-of-the-art Airbus A350-900XWB. The carrier, which is said to have one of the best products on the A350, could be looking to transfer its London operations to Heathrow like done by Beijing Capital Airlines. Cathay Pacific, however, operates flights to both London airports. In other news, Shenzhen Airlines was the second airline to have been awarded slots by Heathrow at two additional slots to their current four weekly slots. This means they will operate a total of three weekly services as opposed to previously only two.


Arkia Israeli Airlines

Israeli-carrier Arkia has submitted a request for 6 slots, allowing for a total of 3 weekly flights. If granted the slots, Arkia would most likely link London to Tel Aviv with their newly delivered Airbus A321LRs. However, it might instead be operated by the single Airbus A330-800neo that the carrier has on order.

One of three Arkia Airbus A321neos. Photo by AeroNewsX/Chris de Breun.

Currently, Arkia operates non-stop flights between its hub Tel Aviv, and London Stansted, one of six airports serving the English capital. With only 8 aircraft in service and one on order, the probability that Arkia would operate to both London airports is quite low. As a result, this may signal the end of Arkia at London Stansted.

LATAM Chile

LATAM Chile, formerly LAN, before the merger with Brazilian flag-carrier TAM, has applied for 28 slots, meaning that the airline would be able to operate up to 14 weekly flights (twice daily). The carrier is based in Santiago, Chile, and would likely fly direct to London Heathrow with their Boeing 787s. The carrier currently has 10 Boeing 787-8s and 15 Boeing 787-9s in service with a further 11 787-9s on order. However, the airline has not been awarded the slots for the summer season. LATAM Chile filed for slots, and was awarded them, at London Gatwick. The airline intends to fly from Santiago (Chile) to London Gatwick.


Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic has been granted two out of the 114 slots that it had requested as part of its ambitious expansion plans, which you can read more about here. The airline aims to be England's second flag carrier, after British Airways, with plans to expand into both the long-haul and short-haul markets.

Tunisair and Turkmenistan Airlines

Tunisair's Heathrow operations for next year are set to reduce drastically, after the slot coordination body suspended all of its existing 8 weekly slots. However, the airline applied for an additional two slots which have been granted. This brings the total number of Tunisair weekly flights between Tunis and Heathrow from four to one.

Photo by AeroNewsX/Karam Sodhi.

Turkmenistan flag-carrier Turkmenistan Airlines has seen all of its slots officially suspended after the EU-wide ban from the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) earlier this year in February following serious safety concerns. The ban was lifted recently, however, the airline has not been able to reclaim any slots at Heathrow.


New Airlines

As mentioned earlier, London Heathrow is a destination that many airlines around the globe want to operate to. In discussions at the moment are some interesting airlines which include Georgian Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, Pegasus Airlines, XiamenAir and Iberia Express.


Georgian Airways is based at Tbilisi International Airport and has a fleet of 9 aircraft. The carrier is privately owned, founded in 1994 as Airzena. The Georgian flag-carrier already operates to London Gatwick. With a small fleet, the prospect of the airline flying to both Gatwick and Heathrow is highly unlikely. Securing slots at Heathrow is obviously a difficult feat, however, it would still be interesting to see what the airline decides should they receive the slots.


Hong Kong Airlines is currently having a tedious time financially. The carrier is interested in flying to London, however, it may not have the funds to go ahead with these plans. The airline has already announced the termination of all its current long-haul routes and is struggling to pay salaries to employees and aircraft-lessors.


XiamenAir is a very strong and stable airline that is the most likely candidate out of these five to launch flights to Heathrow. XiamenAir has a rapidly growing network and operates flights to cities such as New York, Sydney, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Paris and Los Angeles. The Chinese-based airline has a fleet of twelve Boeing 787-9s and over 150 Boeing 737s, making it one of the largest Boeing 737 operators in the world.


Conclusion

Overall, interest in Heathrow remains extremely high. Keeping this in mind, it is highly unlikely that all of the airlines that have requested slots at London Heathrow will get them. Heathrow is only so big, especially considering the fact that they are operating at nearly full capacity. The airport remains successful and the diverse city of London is set to see even more diversity, something that is and rightly so, appreciated by many around the globe.

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