BHX: minor Midlands airport or gateway to the world?

BHX: minor Midlands airport or gateway to the world?

London Heathrow lies 87 miles southeast, representing about 10 minutes’ flying time. Luton airport is 71 miles away in much the same direction. Manchester airport stands 66 miles northwest, while East Midlands is only 32 miles northeast.

Where am I? Birmingham airport, of course. And in the company of the chief executive of the West Midlands hub, Nick Barton. With competitors in such close proximity, doesn’t he feel a little squeezed?

“If you didn’t offer the network coverage and the pricing, then yes – but that isn’t the case,” he says. “We have more people in our catchment area than live in Canada. It’s a big old number of people.

“With the variety of airlines we’ve got, and they’re all competing strongly, they’re stimulating and penetrating that catchment.”

Just arrived: an easyJet Airbus A320 at Birmingham airport (Simon Calder)
Just arrived: an easyJet Airbus A320 at Birmingham airport (Simon Calder)

We are speaking on the day that easyJet launched its new base at Birmingham airport, where three Airbus jets will be located. It is easyJet’s first new base in the UK for 12 years (during which time Britain’s biggest budget airline has closed bases at East Midlands, Newcastle, Stansted and Southend).

The phrase “ferocious competition” seems designed for the expansion. Among the 16 new routes easyJet has announced, five serve key resort airports in Spain: Alicante, Barcelona, Fuerteventura, Malaga and Tenerife. Jet2 and Ryanair already fly to all of them.

Tui and the Spanish budget airline, Vueling, also compete, and to complete the set Wizz Air offers a handful of links. Is this, I wonder, going to be the most competitive airport in the UK for European flights – even more so than Manchester?

“I’d hope so, because the winner in that circumstance is the customer,” says the Birmingham CEO. “It always is.”

“We can only expect to see [the airlines] challenging each other and getting better. That’s what they’ve done down the recent history of aviation. They’ve always been successful, and we’ve got all of them here.

“So we are very, very comfortable in seeing that competitive tension between the airlines.”

Can competition go too far, though? I confessed to Barton that my previous two reporting assignments to Birmingham airport had been for the collapse of Monarch in 2017 and the failure of Flybe in 2020.

“It was the evolution of our industry, wasn’t it? Where the older operators with older business models are out-competed by the newer ones. And all of the traffic that we used to have with those airlines – which was nearly 40 per cent of our total – has been completely replaced.

“So it just shows you the industry can reinvent itself with new investment, new aeroplanes, new business models – and our customers have benefited from that.”

From the point of view of someone living or working in central London (I do both), Birmingham has been propelled into the position of a viable alternative to the capital’s airports.

Trains from London Euston take just 65 minutes to a dedicated station (making it closer, in time terms from central London, than Southampton airport and only 20 minutes further than Stansted). From next week, new security scanners will accelerate the journey through the airport.

I currently use Birmingham airport when the price is right – most recently a cheap Ryanair deal to Corfu – or when I need to reach one of the few destinations inaccessible from a London airport. In May I will avail of the new Ryanair link to Beauvais (loosely known as “Paris”) in northern France.

For long-haul flights, Birmingham makes a good proposition when going east: Emirates operates a giant Airbus A380 and a Boeing 777 from BHX to Dubai, while Air India flies to Amritsar.

Yet the daily link to New York disappeared years ago. Barton wants to restore regular transatlantic flying.

“The biggest challenge at the moment is aircraft availability,” he says. “The airlines have got the appetite. It’s just a question of getting the right aeroplanes. They start coming online in ’25.”

British Airways won’t be coming back to Birmingham any time soon, I fear, and United may judge its powerful presence at Heathrow to be sufficient without diluting traffic with a Midlands connection. But as congestion increases in southeast England, Birmingham may soon add some valuable transatlantic capacity.

“I spent a week in the United States and Canada just before Christmas,” the Birmingham boss says. While he “wouldn’t want to overpromise at this stage”, he expects to resume services to North America in two or three years. And if the HS2 rail line from London ever gets built, with a station at Birmingham airport, the Midlands could even become a fast track to Manhattan.