Why Plymouth needs an airport

We are told that having an airport might make Plymothians feel good about their city but that in reality it is unviable and we shouldn’t feel too bad about seeing it closed.

Well, we disagree. Yes, having local airlinks to major cities is good for confidence in both local businesses and those that might choose to invest in Plymouth – and that in itself is of great importance – but it is much more than just that.

Plymouth City Airport has been viable for 85 years. It was ‘viable’ up until two years ago when Flybe acted against Air South West’s profitable routes. As recently as two years ago ASW was adding routes and talking about an extended runway. At the same time ASW commissioned an independent study from Plymouth Chamber of Commerce that showed 80% of its members saw airlinks as important while only 30% thought rail and road links were adequate. York’s report in 2006 did not see the airport as being unviable, especially if it were developed neither did the PCA Master Plan 2008. The public was told that  the £12 million sale of one end of a disused runway was to have been invested in the airport to enhance its viability. Instead it went to cover losses under a confidential agreement. Now, in very short order, the airport is unviable. And SHG stands to collect another £12 million. Events have moved fast.

Our concern is that Plymouth itself does not become unviable as a place for significant and sustainable economic development over the medium to long term. The new official line is that the airport presently has little economic benefit and offers little for the City. However this case has not been convincingly made. Especially when it is built on very recent numbers and fails to take medium term potential into account.

Plymouth – largest city southwest of Bristol
Plymouth is the 15th largest city in the UK, the largest south coast city and the largest urban population west of Bristol. But it has poor rail, road, air and broadband provision. And it has just lost out on its bid for an enterprise zone. Exeter, with less than half our population has fast trains, motorway and an international airport. Why would any company looking to move out of the south east or coming to the UK in the next 40 years consider looking beyond Exeter. Plymouth’s airport is a long term strategic asset that may have been run down but in years to come could well prove to be the vital key to sustainable economic development.

Newquay has recently won an enterprise zone for its airport and they have less than a tenth of Plymouth’s population. Exeter which is now offered as Plymouth’s local airport is in reality a serious competitor for Plymouth and in many cases it seems Plymouth loses out. This doesn’t stack up. No 15th largest city in any other EU country would be as acquiescent as Plymouth in relinquishing its assets.

A realistic airport
With an extended runway, good local political support, the will to fight for local longer term interests, Plymouth City Airport would have a future in scheduled air services. ATR 42, Dash-8s, Dornier 328s, Jetstream 31 and 41s and a large number of smaller aircraft can operate using the runway with. There is decent passenger capacity on present infrastructure.

Extended to the maximum 1319m length permitted within the airfield’s width, the runway would be the same as that at London City Airport – a short runway but by no means quirky or substandard. World class radar cover is available on request from NATS Western Radar and with the addition of ground radar at the Airport, services would be optimised.

Rail no solution
Rail prices are high and rising fast – 8% increase next year and getting close to capacity. We really are fooling ourselves if we place our hopes in rail to support sustainable economic growth. Three hours by crowded train leaves passengers tired and customers or suppliers that visit feeling Plymouth is seriously peripheral. It emphasises rather than closes Plymouth’s distance.

The fact that the new generation express trains will not travel beyond Exeter, that the rail providers are not lining up to offer the kinds of services Plymouth is demanding should give the City serious cause for concern.

First to lose
Even in regards to the industries Plymouth is championing, when market conditions toughen, there is little doubt that without the proper infrastructure (and that includes air transport links) Plymouth will be first to see employers move out as operations are consolidated to Southampton, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Cardiff, Germany, China as appropriate. There is plenty of precedent for this.

Plymouth’s hosting a naval base over the next 50 years will remain under threat as public sector funding continues to shrink – which it will with the UK’s ageing population. The ability of Plymouth to win private sector investment to replace this will always be impaired by constrained transport links.

Other important uses

  • The Royal Navy is a busy user of the airport for Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST). FOST has expressed a preference for using Plymouth Airport for a number of years to come and is willing to pay good money to do so. If we want to support the Navy’s long term presence and investment in Plymouth, it would make no sense to degrade our attraction to them.
  • Devon and Cornwall Air Ambulance has said closure of the airport will place restrictions on its operations around Derriford which is shortly to become the major trauma centre for the South West. Night flights will become impossible as will landings while the helipad is occupied and helicopters will no longer be able to refuel near Derriford or receive METARS local weather information.
  • Search and Rescue helicopters make use of the Airport. It is the only suitable local facility for the large rescue helicopters. These are vital for divers suffering from decompression and makes hyperbaric operations at Derriford more difficult.
  • Transplant organs are regularly flown into Plymouth by fixed wing for operations at Derriford. Rail and road do not offer the same ability to get organs here from as far away as Scotland.
  • Plymouth has had an active Flying school here for many years training pilots and opening aviation to many. This is all part of the quality of life offering from Plymouth.
  • Aviation engineering services have employed people at Plymouth for decades. Plymouth offers a good low cost competitive venue to attract new businesses.
  • General Aviation is a large user of Plymouth bringing with it users of hotels, restaurants, bars and the marinas. The loss of this community and facility would reduce Plymouth’s attraction to many interested in the South West.

All of these users created employment and economic value for Plymouth and were bases to build on that would allow the airport to become a leading economic driver for the city.

Flawed reports
Berkely Hannover’s 2011 report on Plymouth City Airport has been used to make the non viability case but the report is both skewed and unsatisfactory in establishing key arguments. We should well ask why if the independently commissioned reports of just a couple of years ago were so wrong, Berkley Hannover’s current report should be trusted?

Here are just some objections:

  1. Zero economic benefit: All the reports and studies to date have held that the airport is of significant economic value to Plymouth. It is not until 2011 that this has been revised. Summarily. Based on artificially low passenger numbers this is a weak argument. Also disingenuous is the point that the companies moving to Plymouth recently don’t rate air transport highly at this point. Of course they don’t. They probably won’t rate rail inks, road links, or the Life Centre either. The key is that Plymouth becomes largely invisible from outside when the airlinks close. The question should be how do large multinational investor companies that Plymouth would like to attract value air links. We suggest that will tell a different story. Exeter and Newquay see the economic benefits as would any other city with half a million people in its catchment area.
  2. Local business support: Asking locally active businesses (such as restaraunts, gyms, web designers etc) whether air links are important misses the point. They are locally focused and rightly so. It should be the nationally and international focused that are polled for this. And tapping into international surveys on the value of airlinks to companies seeking locations to invest.
  3. Propensity to fly: this is a central but ultimately weak argument. Building up a sustainable flying public will take time but is achievable. Moreover it would be a vital component of any future airlinks. Until recently Plymouth saw passenger levels increasing while those as Newquay and Exeter were – and are – falling off.  Rising rail fares, good marketing, developing local public support and customer strategies, new destinations around London could all change this and fast. Our overcrowded trains and rising rail fares convince us of this. We have 500,000 people in the Plymouth catchment area. Getting 250,000 of those through the airport annually within in the next five years is entirely realistic.
  4. Adaptation: Yes local people and businesses have adapted to the loss of LHR and LGW routes but that is a pointless argument at best. Many Plymouth businesses are locally focused in any case. People have adapted but economic prospects have diminished as a result. If you closed the railway they would take to the road. They would also adapt even better to the provision of excellent air services. The question is how this has constrained Plymouth’s future and this point is not established. We don’t see Exeter or Newquay adopting such a supine position on this point.
  5. Suitable aircraft: the world is full of short runways and there are a good number of suitable planes based on recent designs. More regional turbo prop planes – which are more fuel efficient than jets – will follow the current fleet. Boeing is currently working on short runway jet designs (CESTOL and ESTOL) to serve airports such as Plymouth. By 2035 it could well be possible to fly a Jet from Plymouth with 150 people on board to Paris or Frankfurt.

We understand the process and the reports but remain unconvinced. This is a medium to long term issue being worked out in a very short term period (about 0.6% of the life of the airport to date). Exeter Airport is losing passenger traffic (down about 20% in recent years) so not everything is rosy there. But they will fight for their local interest.

There are huge challenges but we see no reason why with the necessary political, business and local will, Plymouth could not fight for and become a destination city and economy with excellent sustainable air links over the next 20 years. People could fly to Plymouth from European origins for South West holidays based here. We have the population, we should not relinquish the assets.