UK’s Regional Airports in Fight for Viability

 - May 3, 2013, 1:40 AM

Britain’s skies are filled not so much with aircraft noise as with the sound of grinding axes, as regional airports vie for audibility during the latest UK government reconsideration of aviation strategy. Forever perceiving themselves as poor relations to major London-area facilities, some of Britain’s local airports (especially in central and southwestern regions) have taken to denigrating competitors, all the while proclaiming their respective “connectivity” to airline networks.

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, a shotgun marriage following an indecisive general election in 2010, has begun formulating new policy after throwing out the previous Labor administration’s 30-year plan. A parliamentary transport committee, consisting of members of the lower house who scrutinize the Department for Transport (DfT), also has launched an inquiry into UK aviation strategy.

Meanwhile, the DfT has issued an “aviation policy framework” to an independent airports commission established by the government last year to examine requirements for additional capacity and to make short-, medium- and long-term recommendations. The document–covering issues such as aircraft noise and climate change–addresses a shortage of airport capacity in the generally prosperous, London-centric southeast region, while acknowledging aviation’s “importance to the UK economy, both at a national and regional level.”

By year-end, the commission must propose options to maintain the UK’s international hub status and to improve runway capacity within five years; it has until mid-2015–after the next UK general election–to release related environmental, economic and social impact statements. “Our main priorities [include taking] a UK-wide perspective considering the national, regional and local implications of any proposals,” said the committee, which defines connectivity as “the ability and ease with which [air] passengers and/or freight can reach a given destination.”

“A city’s economy is only as good as its national and international connectivity,” insists Paul Kehoe, chief executive of central England’s Birmingham Airport. Aspiring to host nonstop UK-Asia services, Kehoe argues that local airports cannot maximize capacity because of the reluctance of airlines to fly long-haul direct services other than from London Heathrow, the existence of bilateral agreements that specify to which airports given airlines may fly and often poor surface access.

Airport Consolidation Needed

He also claims that the UK–whose land area roughly equals that of California–has too many regional airports outside London and could better do with just eight: Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton (in England): Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow (Scotland, excluding highland/island airports that enjoy public-service status); and Belfast (Northern Ireland).

Friction between the management of Bristol Airport in southwest England and that of its neighboring airport in the Welsh capital Cardiff, both of which face challenges by recently resurrected private-enterprise plans for an island airport in the Severn Estuary between the two cities, exemplifies local rivalries common among UK regional airports. Following Cardiff Airport’s recent “re-nationalization” by the Welsh Assembly, Bristol Airport chief executive Robert Sinclair perhaps cynically welcomed proclamations that the government would manage Cardiff “at arm’s length and on a commercial basis.”

Sinclair claims the purchase price came in “well above market value” compared with recent UK airport sales. “Government involvement and support is highly likely,” he said, adding that Bristol in the past never worried about Cardiff or other airports that didn’t benefit from “any form of state subsidy or government support.”

Comments

Joe Curry's picture

Edinburgh and Aberdeen in Scotland are natural choices being the busiest in their
respective locations. Including less busier Glasgow just clouds the viability argument. Edinburgh alone in Scotland's central belt could be challenging Manchester in terms of passenger numbers if these central belt numbers were consolidated.

Alan Henderson's picture

A civil airport, Central Scotland Airport, was opened at Grangemouth in summer 1939, only to close months later at the outbreak of WWII to become an RAF air station. I closed in 1955 to make way for the construction of the Grangemouth oil refinery. What an ideal solution this would have been, rather than the current one of EDI and GLA engaged in a process of mutual route dilution. 20 mins rapid rail transport to each city centre, too. It would have been an idea solution for Scotland.

Tom Roberts's picture

Paul Kehoe I note includes two airports for Scotland (population 5.295 million) but not one for Wales ( population 3.064 million). Why should Wales be dependent on England for it's airport. Wales is not a region , it is a country.

Secondly since he is in the airline industry ,I am surprised to see his comments about UK should reflect the number of airports in an area equivalent to California. If he checks, he will find, California has 27 primary airports with a commercial service, compared to the 8 he proposes for the UK. The population of the UK is over 62million, California on the other hand has over 37million.

He proposes Bristol over others. Why use an airport that cannot handle Jumbo jets, and has no rail link. Cardiff airport does have a rail connection. Trains run hourly from Cardiff and Bridgend stations to Rhoose station , linking to a 5 to 10 minute bus journey to the airport.

I also note that there are always complains from local residents who want to stop the expansion of the Bristol airport whereas planes using Cardiff airport can take off and land directly over the sea. Similarly Heathrow suffers from the same constraints as Bristol but we constantly want to add more and more flights to the London airport at the demise of others. Why ?

Cardiff airport has for too long put up with derogatory comments which has led to a reduction in the number of passenger. Some justified due to the lack of investment from the previous Spanish owners but I am pleased that it is now in the hands of the Welsh assembly and not in the hands of the Spanish or Westminster.

Hopefully we will also get responsibility the departure taxes transferred to the Welsh assembly, as they have done to Northern Ireland. This will give it another competitive edge.

Phil Space's picture

He (Paul Kehoe CEO BHX )

also claims that the UK–whose land area roughly equals that of California–has too many regional airports outside London and could better do with just eight: Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton (in England): Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow (Scotland, excluding highland/island airports that enjoy public-service status); and Belfast (Northern Ireland).

Whoops...but I agree close BHX , so says the CEO !

Roger Jeffers's picture

Tom Roberts' comments regarding Bristol and Cardiff airports are somewhat misleading.

There certainly was opposition to expansion at BRS, as there seems to be for any major new construction project in the UK, but that is now history, the plans approved and work is now proceeding.

BRS doesn't need the ability to handle jumbos, there being no demand for flights with aircraft of this size. The market dictates what connections and consequently the size of aircraft operating the schedules, so BRS is able to operate quite successfully within its constraints. What demand is there for jumbo flights from CWL? How many commercial passenger flights have operated from CWL in the last year? If it wasn't for the BA Maintenance facility there would hardly ever be jumbo flights at CWL.

Interesting that the train station at Rhoose is a 5-10 minute bus connection, whereas the arrivawales/airport connections website says 'please allow 30 minutes for bus transfer between Rhoose station and CWL', about the same as the regular BRS airport bus connection from the main Bristol station, but admittedly longer than the bus connections from Swansea and Newport to BRS.

Lee Failla's picture

As Paul Kehoe is so concerned for the number of regional airports, why does he simply not close Birmingham. Just up the road is Manchester who will happily take his air services.

Tom Roberts's picture

I am surprised to see that Mr Jeffers refers to my comments as somewhat misleading.

Re the bus link to Cardiff airport from Rhoose. The actual journey time from the station to the airport is 7 minutes based on the bus link 905 including a pick up at the Holiday Inn express. The time taken by the Airport link from Bristol Bus station to the airport averages out at 37 minutes during the day. The additional time in the Cardiff airport / Arriva trains notice is contingency to cover possible delays. Just to quote the journey time for the Bristol link and excluded any contingency, does not bode well for anyone catching the plane at Bristol.

Hopefully when the Welsh assembly agree to create the short rail link from Rhoose direct to the airport, travel times will be further reduced. Bristol cannot even consider the possibility of a rail link since it is remote from any main line train station.

Bristol may be happy not to have a long runway (2011 meters compared to 2392 at Cardiff) but it could certainly limit their potential growth in seeking out long haul destinations in the future. This is where the growth market isgoing to be.

Bistol has worked hard in drawing passengers from South Wales and the Forest of Dean but in future , the task will not be as easy. There is a strong determination in Wales to see it's own countries airport succeed and will have the backing of the Welsh government. Interesting to see how the current owners of Bristol airport, Canadian Teachers pension fund and the Austrailian banking group Macquarie will react when they beging to loose some if not all of the estimated 1.1 million from Wales who currently use the airport.

Finally, why should Bristol, Cardiff or Exeter not have connections to the States. Every clear day when I look up in the sky I see tens of planes on their journey from London to the USA and not one leaving from South West or Wales

The years ahead will be a hard struggle for Cardiff to begin to retain the passenger numbers it once had but hopefully with devolution of the APD to Wales, and increased awareness of the better transport links to Cardiff airport , greater support from Welsh and Forest of Dean deople, passenger numbers would then begin to increase.

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