LONDON, April 10 Northwest England's Manchester airport is to operate direct flights to Hong Kong later this year and more services to China could follow, stepping up competition with London Heathrow, which is operating almost at full capacity.
Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, is falling behind rival European hubs in the battle for lucrative routes to emerging markets because of the constraints on expansion.
Manchester Airport, in northern England, said on Thursday that Cathay Pacific would begin a four-times-a-week service to Hong Kong from December, the first time passengers in Britain will be able to travel directly to China on a scheduled service from outside London.
Manchester Airport Group's chief executive Charlie Cornish said talks with two other airlines, Air China and Hainan Airline, regarding opening more routes to China were underway.
"We're talking to them about a direct route from Manchester to Beijing. I'm hopeful that that will come through over the course of the next 12 months," he told Reuters.
Lawmakers and business leaders agree that Britain needs new runways to remain economically competitive but all plans are on hold while the government's special Airports Commission deliberates.
A recommendation about where a new runway should go will be made by the Airports Commission in the second half of next year, but building would not complete until the middle 2020s, giving other airports in Britain a chance to add new flights as air travel demand grows.
Heathrow, is operating at 98 percent of its potential compared with Manchester, Britain's third busiest airport, which is operating at 60 percent capacity, and Stansted, the country's fourth biggest airport and London's third, which is operating at 51 percent.
Manchester Airport and Stansted are owned by Manchester Airport Group which in turn is owned by an Australian pension fund and a group of regional councils around Manchester.
"We'll be starting to look at the opportunity to bring long-haul opportunities to Stansted as well," Cornish said, confirming that the group was in talks with long-haul carriers regarding options at Stansted, but declining to name them. (Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Greg Mahlich)