Case Study

Nextgen And Virgin Atlantic’s Airport Hubs


This detailed document discusses Virgin Atlantic’s airline main hub, which is London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). The airline highly makes use of LHR than Gatwick and Manchester Airports. Most airlines use the airport to transfer passengers from different nations causing high demand of the airport by the airlines and the passengers travelling across international cities and emerging markets. Heathrow airport’s major problem rose from its capacity constraint that resulted in congestion, along the 2 runways and in airspace before aircrafts landing. The effects of congestion impact on pollution and affect human health standards for resident population around the airport. This document elaborates reasons behind increasing demand of the airport and its history growth trend, with respect to passengers who increase each day annually. It also states the possible solution for congestion and constrained capacity involving building another runway though discouraged, constructing another hub although expensive, or implementing use of both runways for aircraft departure in case of more delays. Heathrow airport currently made use of ADS-B to increase safety in aircraft movements. Deployment of SESAR, an equivalent of NextGen would take place after its development to manage air traffic.
Keywords: Airports, Airplanes, Capacity Constraint, Congestion, Air Traffic, Hub, Hub Airports, Runways, Nextgen, SESAR, Pollution

Virgin Atlantic airway is one of the largest airlines from Britain that many passengers around the world use. The company has gained popularity in the globe attracting customers as well creating stiff competition in the airline industry. It has been in existence since 1984 and currently owed by two main principles; Branson’s Virgin group and Singapore airlines that hold 51 percent and 49 percent respectively. This was after Richard Branson sold the 49 percent for the purpose of global partnership (“Virgin Atlantic airways,” n.d). Virgin Atlantic airline is part of the 1-800-Flyof European airline partnership that offer upper, business, premium economy, and economy classes of services that uses Airbus and Boeing fleet(“Virgin Atlantic information page,” 2012). There are several airports that the airline uses, but the three main ones are Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports; the first two are based in London, while the latter is in Manchester.

Capacity constraint of London’s Heathrow Airport: Virgin Atlantic airline conducts long haul services from Heathrow airport to most destinations of the cities in the world’s continents. It is estimated that more than 86 different airlines use the airport to serve close to 183 destinations of around ninety countries where the passengers travel (“Heathrow facts and figures,” n.d). Recently, the busy airport has faced difficulties in handling the airplane traffic and the increasing number of airline passengers that use the route. They are suffering from the problem of capacity constraint, which has made most of the world airlines to avoid the United Kingdom. Using a report on a survey conducted, it showed that 53 percent of scheduled airlines have made up a decision to change their flights base to other destination hubs due to Heathrow’s lack of enough capacity (“World airlines shun,” 2012). In short, the problem was that Heathrow airport had limited landing and take off slots.

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The available terminals in the airport could not manage to support the planes traffic, hence causing delays for the services. If there was enough attention paid on capacity levels of the airport, then the airport could not be going through the situation. As of early 90s, Heathrow capacity was set at an utmost of fifty million passengers but as of 2006, the number of passengers had increased to sixty eight million (GLA, 2006). From Heathrow airport information, more than 213000 passengers have to use the airport to reach their destinations where on average about 1250 flights operate from the hub daily (“About London Heathrow airport,” n.d).

The relation of hub capacity to airport demand affects the passengers’ ticket demand, besides determining the flights’ waiting period and delay. According to Dunne (2012), in early 2012, the British airport operator confessed that the capacity constraint of the airport had caused a downfall of passenger travelling to China who opted to use other competing airports. Many of the airplanes are left moving in the air as they wait for the airport traffic to reduce so that they can land. The overcrowding situation in Heathrow causes the planes to consume lot of fuel while circulating, which also causes stranded passengers frustration. Currently, the latest reports indicate that Heathrow’s terminal passengers in thousands stands at 6011.8, which implies a negative 0.1 (-0.1) percent change in the month of October 2012 (BAA, 2012). Air transport movement remained at 39638, which was a negative change of 3.2 percent (BAA, 2012). The demand for air travel in the United Kingdom will increase in the future, hence creating the need for proper plans been laid down to accommodate the increasing demand.

Causes of congestion in Heathrow airport: Congestion is brought about by the increasing number of vehicles driving into the airport, and the flight arrivals of the different aircrafts. Some passengers come in or leave the airport using taxis or private vehicles. These vehicles have to pay a charge of 8 Euros, daily for entering a congested zones around London (“Getting to London from Heathrow,” 2008). Although the cars and buses in place have the parking slot, the populations of the passengers still require quick and undisrupted movement. The limited number of runways in the airport dictates how many planes can land and take off. The runway capacity at Heathrow is quite high comparing to other airports around which could affect their traffic. The numbers of planes have to queue in the runways after landing and before taking off, causing delay for the travelling passengers. The busy airport and the airspace require proper management combined with improved capacity, to reduce the average delay time. Weather condition is a major aviation challenge that affect the delay period of aircrafts in Heathrow airport.
When the flights delay to arrive at the expected time, there is bound to be disruption in the way the service may be delivered at the airport. Time allocated for delivering service to one plane, may be delayed for another plane that was supposed to come early. Aircrafts may also be forced to circulate in the air to offer time for the delayed planes arrival that could be affected by the weather situation. At London Heathrow airport (LHR), disruption due to weather causes are quite obvious, which may occur in form of thunderstorm or snow squall that gives another task of removing ice from the aircraft, hence affecting flight schedules at destination airport, in- flight and at the origin airport(“Causes of flight arrival delays,” 2012).

Effects of congestion: Airport congestion, which causes general delay, extends an additional cost to the passengers and the airlines in terms of money and time. Airspace congestion causes noise pollution, which makes the society to rebuke the construction of a third runway close to their homes. There are also emissions of carbon dioxide gases from the fuel combustion of the aircrafts and vehicles in and around the airport, which pollutes the air as well as affecting the climate change. It has been noted that the European health standard of the surrounding Heathrow airport communities has been affected by the local air quality, while the aircraft noise that is common every few minutes, each day and night, exceeds the other hub airports combined noise impact (“Aviation strategy,”2012).

Causes of capacity constraint in Heathrow airport: Due to the increase in passengers around the globe, airlines have to make frequent flights to LHR. The increasing international demand to use the Heathrow, UK main hub, has proven difficult for LHR to handle. The airport’s limited number of runways cannot support the growing number of frequent flights leaving and arriving. Currently, in this situation, the airport has been restricted to 480000 flights in each year; meaning, the other competitive European airport hubs will be on the advantage edge, since they have enough runway capacities to offer more flights than Heathrow (Matthews, 2012). Another arguable reason is that the last estimated capacity level, could have been skewed leading to poor planned prospect of the airport in future.

Although the company had proposed for an addition of a third runway, the Government rejected the proposal with respect to the limited space of construction and the surrounding society. According to 2011 Heathrow report, the size of the aircraft (Boeing and Airbus) operating in the airport, with no doubt, affects the airport capacity (Matthews, 2011). The long hauls travelers have to use large carriers, and also have to use the airport for their passengers transfer.

Effects of capacity constraint: It is clear that the delays of both passengers’ arrival, departure and movement, and aircrafts’ landing and take off all have an effect on capacity. This also affects the schedule time of services at the airport. As earlier stated, airlines are taking another direction to look for another hub to base their flights. Competition is stiff and as a result, Heathrow could be slipping out of the advantaged competition comparing to other Europe’s international hub airports (Matthews, 2012, p. 2).

Reasons for Heathrow demand: The geographical location of the airport gives it an advantage, which being near to London city, many direct passengers and most especially business people can travel easily. It also gives an opportunity where passengers can be transferred from different international markets as they access transport to their destinations. Despite the congestion and capacity constraint, the airport management has tried to design terminal facilities and system so that there is quicker transfer of passengers, languages and their cargo, which well connects to Britain’s advanced motorway network (Matthews, 2012). Considering that many airlines have to stop within the airport, passengers may prefer using the airport due to its operation on large scale routes of network, and the available frequent flights to various destinations. In addition to the above, the growth in the economy of the UK or origins of different airlines stopping in Heathrow implies increase in income, which increases aviation demand (Matthews, 2011). Passenger travelling (for business or leisure) using the airport has increased over time when there is an economic growth in UK.

The growth of Heathrow airport has taken place gradually, especially in the 1980s when the travelling passengers increased over the estimated figure, requiring the formation of terminal 4 due to reduction in airport space. Over time, terminal 5 has been constructed and put in use, while terminal 2was closed for renovation. The number of airlines and passengers passing by the airport has increased tremendously to make the management think of an option to increase the current capacity. Comparing Heathrow with other European airports like Gatwick, Heathrow has shown to host more increasing passengers than the rest since 1972 (CAA, 2008). With all this, the airport has added more facilities like car parks for both short and long term vehicles for passengers’ movements, more housing lounging, shopping centers, and facilities for disabled passengers and workforce.

Passengers connecting at London Airports from in a span of 1972 to 2007

Figure 1. Illustration of different proportions of passengers connecting at London Airports from 1972 to 2007. Adapted from Connecting Passengers at UK Airports,” by CAA, 2008, p. 7. Copyright 2008 by Civil Aviation Authority.
According to Poole (2012), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally released the annual Aerospace forecast for the next twenty years, intended for slowing down the growth in airline passengers till 2024 to hit the billion annual passengers point.
Solutions to the problems: Following the need for air traffic management, current congestion needs combined effort to control air traffic. The first declined solution was to build another runway in LHR. Although the economy would be loosing billions by delaying further approval to the construction, there still exist doubts whether it would solve the problem completely or it would require another expense to lay down a forth runway in future. According to Griffith, another option would be to build another hub airport, but it would have adverse effects on the economy in relation to trade, employment and international connectivity (2012). The other option will be to manage congestion and control capacity constraint, by allowing use of the two existing runways for controlled aircraft departure incase of severe delays. However this plan is still under trial phase and would serve right if approved (“Operation freedom trial,” n.d).

FAA has given priority to Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) to counter air traffic congestion. Through this, the existing ground based technologies of air traffic control will change to more adjustable satellite based technologies that can use and share available data from surface surveillance to keep close track of aircraft movement for efficient use of an airport capacity.

Reference List

About London Heathrow Airport. Retrieved from
Air traffic management- Funding future ATM. (2011April). Retrieved from
? Ashford, N. J., Mumayiz, S. A., & Wright, P. H. (2011). Airport Engineering: Planning, Design and Development of 21st Century Airports. New Jersey: John Wiley & sons.
Aviation Strategy. (2012, November 8). Retrieved from
BAA. (2012, October). Heathrow Traffic and Business Commentary October 2012. Retrieved from
CAA. (2008, November). Connecting Passengers at UK Airports. Retrieved from
Dunne, J. (2012, February13). BAA China Traffic Hit by Capacity Constraint. Retrieved from
Getting to London from Heathrow. (2008). Retrieved from
Griffith, J. (2012, November 15). Expand Heathrow or Build a New Hub Airport-Heathrow. Retrieved from
Matthews, Colin (2011, September). Connecting for Growth: The Role of Britain’s Hub Airport in Economic Recovery. Retrieved from
Matthews, Colin. (2012, November). One Hub or None: The Case for s Single UK Hub Airport. Retrieved from
Operation Freedom Trial: Phase 2. Retrieved from
The Causes of Flight Arrival Delays at London Heathrow (LHR) Airport. (2012). Retrieved from
Virgin Atlantic Airways-Company Overview. Retrieved from
Virgin Atlantic Information Page. (2012). Retrieved from
World Airlines Shun Heathrow Airport Due to Passenger Capacity Constraints, Says Survey. (2012, April 18). Retrieved from

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