IN 2011 – 80 years after it was opened amid much pomp and ceremony by the future Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales – it was announced that Plymouth City airport, bereft of London links, was no longer economically viable. Operations ceased on December 23 that year. Happy Christmas, Plymouth City.
Fast-forward to today, and a campaign to re-open the Devon airport is gathering pace and strength. The consortium behind the campaign group, Fly Plymouth, has just concluded its second crowd-funding drive, seeking to raise £75,000 as it prepares for “an important planning battle” to bring Plymouth City back to life.
Initially, the campaigners hope to re-open the airport only for general aviation – that is, all types of civilian flights except large-scale commercial passenger operations. But the longer-term ambition, according to Fly Plymouth chief executive Raoul Witherall, is to forge scheduled service links with Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Interestingly, given that Plymouth’s 2011 closure is blamed on the lack of London links, the capital’s airports are not (or not yet) on Witherall’s hit-list. And thereby hangs a tale…
The UK’s regional airports – those without a ‘London’ prefix – broadly fall into three categories. There are those like Manches¬ter, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow that are sufficiently well-endowed with international scheduled services that their punters don’t need to trek to Heathrow.
Then there are the likes of Bristol, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Leeds-Bradford, and even Southampton and Cardiff, that manage to fill the middle ground. Each has a clearly defined catchment area and, more impor¬tantly, a clearly-defined business demand.
Finally, there are those, like Plymouth – and Oxford, Norwich, Belfast City, Dundee and countless others – that are never likely
to attract the Emirates or the Deltas of this world. They may be able to support one-off services to Amsterdam, Paris or Dublin, but their survival depends, to a great degree, on their ability to feed hub airports that boast links to, say, Chicago, Seoul or Sao Paulo.
The big boys, of course, don’t want to play ball. A tiny turbo-prop takes up as much runway space and time as an Airbus A380 and disgorges one-tenth of the number of passengers – the financial numbers simply don’t add up. Therein lies the rub.
Simon McNamara, director-general of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), points out that his organisation’s 52 members carry 62 million passengers a year and contribute €52 billion to Europe’s GDP. He says that while five airline groups – IAG, KLM/Air France, Lufthansa Group, Easyjet and Ryanair – have a 55 per cent market share on intra-European seats, their size makes them “increasingly slow to react to market demand as corporate complexity and union power weigh them down”.
Meanwhile, more agile regional air¬lines can fill gaps for the large carriers on some routes on a flexible basis. But, says McNamara, “one of the biggest constraints to regional connectivity is the lack of hub capacity in Europe”.
He cites a European Commission study published in December 2015 that found that by 2035 European airports will be unable to accommodate some two million flights because of capacity shortages. More than 20 airports will be operating at or near full capacity for six or more hours each day. This is the key challenge for regional airports for whom the vital element for growing busi¬ness is developing and maintaining routes with hub airports.
“It is estimated that the economic cost of being unable to accommodate the demand is an annual loss in EU GDP of between €28 billion and €52 billion,” says McNamara. “These figures should be setting off alarm bells for planners – but in reality no con¬struction or investment is happening.”
Unless new hub capacity is built in Europe, he says, regional routes will continue to be squeezed out of hubs.
HUBS OR HUB-NOTS...
In the UK, the British Infrastructure Group (BIG), a cross-party group of MPs chaired by Grant Shapps MP, suggests improvements in rail infrastructure mean the London hub issue might become irrelevant.
Once HS2 is complete, BIG said in its Gate Now Closing July report, the catch-ment area for Birmingham and Manchester airports will be vastly expanded; for a vast swathe of the population, they will become more viable than Gatwick or Stansted, for example.
The flaw in that contention is that the traveller will have to live or work close to an HS2 station – the high-speed network will be of little use to the populations of south west England, north Wales or East Anglia.
Furthermore, there are those who argue that the UK – and England in particular – already has a superfluity of airports. As the crow flies, Bournemouth and Southampton airports are less than 25 miles apart; Liver¬pool John Lennon is a similar distance from Manchester airport.
Meanwhile, BIG sees the regions chal-lenging the hub model. “Although links between UK regional airports and long-haul destinations are still small compared to what is available in the London area, they are growing rapidly,” its report says, sug¬gesting that the future lies in “a lattice of competing regional airports, rather than a London hub system”.
The hub system, BIG suggests, is past its sell-by date. When national carriers domi¬nated the highly-regulated aviation world, bilateral agreements limited the number of ‘foreign’ flights allowed into a country, so airlines inevitably elected to fly to and from the most important airports.
Deregulation has changed all that. ‘Foreign’ carriers – Ireland-registered Ryanair, for example – can now pretty much fly to and from wherever they like.
While BIG accepts that the hub model is far from extinct, it suggests that the gov-ernment should place greater emphasis on regional airport development – either in tandem with, or independently of, that of the major gateways.
As the past years’ wrangling over the siting of south east England’s new runway has amply demonstrated, expansion at hubs will always be constrained. Regional airports, BIG argues, could alleviate – and are alleviating – some of the pressure on hubs’ capacity. There is hardly an airport in the UK that does not now have links with, for example, Amsterdam, Paris or Frankfurt, so some of that pressure is relieved at Heathrow.
However, most regional airports cannot support services to the key long-haul des¬tinations, so regional airlines need access to hub airports to feed such flights. Up to now, that access has been hard to come by.
GTMC chief executive Paul Wait high-lights the fact that Heathrow is offering a beacon of hope. As part of its campaign to win its third runway, Heathrow Airport Holdings has offered to ring-fence part of that extra capacity for domestic routes. Perhaps it has learned a lesson from London City, which thrives on a host of feeder services from regional points – Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Isle of Man and Belfast City, Cardiff and Exeter, and Jersey and Guernsey all have London City links.
It has not, of course, revealed what the landing fees might be. However, maybe – just maybe – Plymouth-Heathrow might at some point become a reality.
UK regional update
• London City airport has recently seen Flybe launch frequent services to Cardiff and Dusseldorf. Work is due to start on the airport’s £350 million expansion project, which was given the green light in July. The project is set to increase capacity by an approximate 32,000 further flights by 2025 – movements that are already permitted.
• Belfast International is to have a new Ryanair link to London from next March, with the launch of 12 flights a week to Gatwick. Ryanair is also introducing new Belfast services to Berlin and Milan.
• Aberdeen International next year welcomes the return of Latvian low-cost airline Air Baltic, with a thrice-weekly service between the Granite City and Riga.
• Birmingham airport has announced a £100 million upgrade, which will include doubling its baggage processing capacity and the number of self-service bag-drop kiosks.
• Bristol airport will open new, faster ePassport gates and increase the number of immigration checkpoints next spring, as part of its £24 million terminal refurb.
• Cardiff airport managing director Debra Barber has welcomed Flybe’s “fantastic new route” to Berlin. The twice-weekly service has been brought forward in response to demand.
• Edinburgh airport will launch the second phase of its public consultation on potential new flightpaths in the new year.
• Leeds-Bradford airport will publish is final masterplan – Route to 2030 – before the end of this year. The airport aims to more than double its passenger throughput, to 7.1 million, in the next 15 years.
• Liverpool John Lennon airport is to become Romanian low-cost carrier Blue Air’s eighth European base from next summer, when the airline will launch new routes to Rome, Milan and Hamburg.
• Manchester airport now has a double-daily service to Bremen, courtesy of British Airways’ franchise partner Sun-Air.
• Newcastle International airport has a new Easyjet link to Berlin; and next summer sees the launch of new Ryanair services to Madrid and Warsaw, among other destinations.
• Southampton airport has a new, year-round daily service to Munich, operated by Flybe. Bmi regional launched a double-daily Southampton-Munich operation in April this year.