Why is Birmingham Airport not realising its potential?

Simon Calder
New arrivals? Birmingham airport could handle a lot more flights: Simon Calder

Edinburgh and Luton airports handled 8.6 per cent more travellers last year; Manchester increased passenger numbers by almost the same percentage; and Stansted, Gatwick and Heathrow also performed strongly in 2017.

When all the scores were in, I assessed the performance of Britain’s top six airports.

Why just the prime half-dozen, when there are many more good airports scattered around the UK? Partly to keep the article within reasonable bounds. But also because it these six seem to have established a cohort well ahead of their rivals – airports such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Belfast International and Newcastle, to name the remainder of the top 11. (And if you’re wondering, ‘Why 11?,’ it’s because Belfast and Newcastle are constantly tussling for 10th place.)

Let's zero in on one of those: Birmingham. Why has Birmingham airport not really met its potential given the sizeable local population and central location?

While any airport handling more than 12 million passengers in a year can hardly be counted a failure, Birmingham is in the shadow of its giant counterparts: Heathrow, seven times bigger; Gatwick, four times larger; Manchester and Stansted, both over 25 million a year; and, if there were not enough London airports in the list, Luton is accelerating away with 15.7 million over the past 12 months.

In a sense, the answer is right there. The West Midlands has a population of almost 3 million, and surrounding counties add a couple more millions. But travellers in the region have an implausible amount of choice within easy reach.

Coventry to Luton or Solihull to Heathrow is not much more than an hour’s drive with a clear run. Anyone in Leicester or Burton on Trent is closer to East Midlands, a busy hub for Ryanair and others, than to “BHX”, to use its official initials. And while Stafford and Stoke have direct train connections to Birmingham airport in an hour or less, on the other direction Manchester airport has many more destinations and flights from which to choose.

Airports are like planets: the bigger they are, the more passengers and airlines they attract. And the higher the frequency of flights, the greater the appeal – particularly to business travellers, who appeal strongly to airlines because they tend to spend a lot more on their tickets.

Birmingham boasts some exotic destinations, including Amritsar on Air India and Ashgabat on Turkmenistan Airlines. But BHX no longer appears on the list of links from New York. And while Qatar Airways and Emirates have daily and double-daily flights to their hubs in the Gulf, Etihad and Oman Air do not.

Numerically speaking, Birmingham is in the same league as Cologne-Bonn, Berlin Schonefeld and Stuttgart. And perhaps Germany is a good comparison, as a country with a couple of big hubs (Frankfurt and Munich) and some strong regional airports.

The year ahead looks mostly optimistic. Primera Air of Denmark will fly to Boston, New York and Toronto from May, with additional links to Mallorca and Malaga helping to fill the void left by now-defunct Monarch.

Outbound flights are, of course, only half the story. Birmingham has always struggled in terms of its image compared with other airports; it can’t claim to be London (even though Euston is only 70 minutes by train), and it lacks a high-profile Premier League football team.

Yet there is one easy move that could put Birmingham airport on the world map: embellishing the name, as Liverpool John Lennon and George Best Belfast City have done with some success. No other airport is so close to Stratford-upon-Avon, so call it Birmingham Shakespeare International.

Ideal for two gentlemen heading for Verona, a merchant needing urgently to reach Venice or a family after a midsummer night Dreamliner flight.