Thursday, September 12, 2013

How does LHR compare to the Berlin airlift?

My wife and I went on vacation in Europe this month, and at one point we stayed at a sweet hotel that just happened to be located under the Eastern approaches of London's Heathrow airport. As we watched plane over plane pass over us, I wondered how LHR's traffic compared to the Berlin Airlift.

For the uninformed, I direct you to the wikipedia article, or this equally random site on the internet. To sum it up briefly, post-WWII, both Germany and Berlin were parceled up among the four major Allied powers, each with their own zone. Berlin was deep within the Soviet sector of Germany, and thus needed to be supplied by rail/road from West Germany. Stalin decided he wanted to keep Berlin for himself, so he cut off the land supply route to pressure the West to get out. Instead of go to war or give up, the remaining Allied powers decided to supply Berlin entirely by air for what turned out to be 15 months of crisis.

Whenever I've read about the airlift, I'm always struck by magnitude of the numbers. We had to fly everything into Berlin: coal, food, medicine, machines, everything. In the middle of the airlift, we also apparently built a third airport in the French sector in order to handle more supplies. It was a triumph of logistics, and an amazing achievement.

But how does it compare to today? Some of the relevant figures quoted in the varying articles: at the height of the crisis, one plane was landing every 30 seconds. Over the entire crisis, a total of 2.3 million tons (I'm assuming this source uses US, or short tons) was delivered from a total of 277,569 flights.

Well, this is where the Heathrow facts page comes to our aid. Daily average air transport movements in 2012 was 1,288: I assume this means total cargo and passenger flights. LHR flies planes unrestricted from 7:00 - 23:00 (there are a number of restrictions outside that timeframe, so let's assume for argument that the grand majority of planes are arriving over that timeframe), which yields one plane taking off or landing every 45 seconds. I suppose that means one landing every 90 seconds.

Of course, the airlift had two, then three airports, so little LHR is probably outgunned (even with their two runways). Either way, point Berlin Airlift.

Next, if you look at average tonnage over the crisis, the airlift was landing 153,000 tons every month on average. Heathrow's fact page converts to a figure of 134,000 tons every month. So it looks as though LHR is losing on cargo, but...

Most of Heathrow's traffic is in passenger traffic. At least, the grand majority (99%) of flights have passengers by my calculations (incidentally, passenger jets must be ferrying cargo as well or you might be led to believe that LHR cargo flights come in pretty heavily loaded: 660 tons/flight).

The airlift comes out to 18,500 flights per month on average, whereas LHR does...39,075. So maybe it loses out on the cargo front, but, measured by flights, LHR beats the average combined efforts of the major Western powers during 1948-1949.

And LHR isn't even the busiest airport in the world! If you want a pure cargo viewpoint, that honor goes to Hong Kong International. HKG runs 373,156 tons every month. That's more than double the airlift's average! In fact, if you took the top ten busiest cargo airports in the world, you'd need less than a month to finish the Berlin Airlift. You could spend the next fourteen months building an underground Hyperloop to bypass the Soviets.

Granted, using averages isn't the best way to compare cargo, because there definitely was a build up and a draw down: it appears that during the height of the crisis, the Berlin Airlift was shuttling about 267,000 tons per month. So it's not getting destroyed quite as badly by HKG, and definitely a solid win with the technology of the time. Also, their highest projected monthly flight rate ends up at 41,490 flights, so they certainly could marginally beat LHR, at least on its average day.

I'll stop now so that my readership doesn't drop from six to five, but the Berlin Airlift and the modern air industry are miracles of logistics. I love the world we live in.