Maurice J Wickstead reports on the demise of Plymouth City Airport, UK.
After months of uncertainty, on December 23, 2011, Plymouth City Airport finally closed its doors, bringing to an end more than eight decades of continuous operation. For the better part of 40 years, the airport has served the city commercially, though its origins extend back to the early 1920s. In fact, it was Plymouth’s seafaring heritage that brought early commercial aviation experiments to the city with a series of trial flights starting in April 1923, designed to speed up inbound mail from transatlantic liners.
Following a campaign to establish municipal airports nationwide, Roborough, as the airport was then known, was officially opened by HRH Prince of Wales on July 15, 1931, though flying from the site had already begun ten months earlier. Throughout the subsequent years prior to World War Two, scheduled passenger services were operated from Plymouth as part of the Railway Air Services countrywide network. Between 1939 and 1945, Roborough was largely in the hands of the Royal Navy and functioned primarily as a convenient communications and gunnery training base for the nearby naval dockyard and home port. With the return of peace, it resumed its civil role. Limited scheduled commercial flying got under way in 1952 with Jersey Airways calling in from the Channel Islands, and more substantially from 1961 when Dan-Air set up an outstation to provide passenger services to connect with the rest of its UK network. Thereafter for a few years, several small locally-based operators – most notably Mayflower and Westward Airways – tried their hands, but were all doomed to a short-term existence through financial failure.
The transformation of Roborough from a tranquil provincial aerodrome into Plymouth City Airport began in March 1975, when Brymon Airways took over the running of the site on a 125-year lease from the City Council. Brymon had first come to Plymouth two years earlier, starting with scheduled summer services to the Channel Islands and Isles of Scilly, flown with BN Islander aircraft. A modest regional network was gradually developed, enhanced by the addition of DHC Twin Otter aircraft as passenger numbers grew steadily. Work on a £3m (US$4.6m) modernisation plan for the airport commenced in 1976, beginning with hard surfacing of one of the grass runways and erection of a dedicated maintenance hangar. Development continued over the next decade, adding a new terminal complex, control tower and administration block, while further improvements to the runways saw the addition of an ILS/DME facility and dual PAPI 3.0/7.5-degree lighting. This latter aid, the first in the UK, enabled Brymon to prepare for steep approaches into London City, where it made the first commercial proving flight on October 14, 1987, using one of its second generation DHC Dash Seven STOL turboprops. By this time, Brymon’s network extended to London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, the Channel Islands, Southern Ireland, Brittany and as far north as Aberdeen, from where an oil-support contract was operated for Chevron. Commensurately, passenger uplift grew from a mere 2,500 in 1972 to more than 131,000 a decade later.
During 1983, Brymon sold a 75% stake to DHC (Bombardier) as a way of financing the heavy re-equipment costs. This was followed by a management buy-out in 1985, in which British Airways took a 40% holding. Further fleet modernisation came with the twin-engine Bombardier Dash Eight in 1990 and through various subsequent reorganisations, Brymon, now a wholly-owned BA subsidiary, effectively disappeared in March 2002 when it merged with Isle of Man-based British Regional Airlines to become BA CitiExpress.
For almost 30 years, the presence of Brymon had sustained the airport commercially, providing the bulk of its passenger throughput, which peaked at over 124,000 in 2001. However, within a year of full integration, BA embarked on a substantial across-the-board cost-cutting exercise, with CitiExpress alone suffering an 8% capacity reduction, and the loss of 12 routes and 500 staff in an attempt to achieve annual savings of £20m ($31m and attain profitability. A casualty of this rationalisation was the Plymouth-based operation, which immediately saw the withdrawal of flights to Cork and Dublin. The Irish destinations were rescued in August 2002 by Air Wales extending its Newcastle-Cardiff service through Plymouth. Over the next couple of years, this helped revive the airport’s passenger figures by around 35% to 109,000 for 2005, until Air Wales ceased all scheduled services in April 2006. Subsequently, Plymouth’s future came under serious threat when BA announced early in 2003 that it intended to cease all flying from the location.
Salvation came in May 2003, when local property and regeneration group, Sutton Harbour Holdings (SHH), stepped in to create Air Southwest (ASW) to take over the BA operation. Sutton Harbour, with interests in local fisheries, marina and waterfront properties, had already assumed running of the airport in 2000 on a long-lease from the City Council at a nominal rent. Starting modestly with two Dash Eight turboprops acquired from BA, flights continued almost seamlessly from October 26, 2003, concentrating initially on the key link to London Gatwick (LGW). The new airline remodelled itself as a budget carrier with fares starting as low as £19 ($29) for the shortest sectors.
Five years on, and with a fleet of five aircraft, Air Southwest was boarding over 257,000 passengers system-wide and had developed a network of ten regular destinations from Jersey to Manchester, plus Cork and a seasonal service to Chambery/Grenoble in the French Alps. Further enhancement came in 2009 with the addition of Dublin and London City (LCY), the latter reprising the earlier initiative of October 1987, when Brymon became one of the new City airport’s first inhabitants with flights to Paris and Brussels in association with Air France and SABENA. Aimed primarily at the business traveller, the twice-daily LCY service also offered a ‘mix and match’ facility, allowing outbound or return via Gatwick according to requirements. However, despite the potential appeal, passenger numbers failed to measure up to expectations and the route was closed down at the end of May 2010, after little more than a year in operation. This depressed the airline’s overall passenger boardings by some 15% from the previous year’s 307,000, and with cumulative losses reported at £5m ($7.7m) the airline was offered for sale.
An unlikely buyer appeared in the shape of Eastern Airways, with whom a strategic marketing alliance had already been concluded aimed at increasing ASW’s profile through its partner’s global distribution reservations system. The sale was finalised at the end of November 2010 but, despite having what looked like a mutually-beneficial route network and encouraging noises from Eastern, talking of synergies and a commitment to provide continuation, it was always difficult to see how the two carriers would fit together – and so it proved. While Eastern, with a fleet of 30 aircraft, including Embraer Regional Jets, is essentially a business-centric, hybrid full-service operation, in contrast, ASW was primarily a low-cost airline with comparatively few trimmings. Any misgivings were soon confirmed when ASW dropped its first-line service to LGW in February 2011, attributed to ongoing losses and competition from Exeter-based Flybe over the parallel route from Newquay, which had been unsuccessfully challenged in 2009 through the OFT.
The decision to pull off the Gatwick route was perhaps somewhat surprising when, according to a trusted source within ASW, by use of careful yield-management techniques, the airline was still breaking-even over the sector. However, when Gatwick subsequently raised its landing fees by 20% it effectively wiped out any chance of ASW making a profit on the route. Losing all Plymouth City connections to London was a big shock to everyone at the airport as its links to the capital had been the backbone of the airport’s sustainability since the 1980s. Fears that ASW’s sale to Eastern had been little more than an asset realisation opportunity were heightened with news that the Gatwick slots were up for grabs at an estimated £3-5m ($4.6-7.7m).
The final nail in the coffin came with the April announcement that Plymouth Airport was to close at the end of 2011, citing expected losses of £1m ($1.6m) for the remaining period and passenger throughput of less than 100 per week. Commensurately, revenue-earning air transport movements for the first quarter of 2011 declined by over 50% from the previous year.
This, in turn, led to the decision to completely shut down Air Southwest as of September 30, the stated reason being that significantly lower forward bookings made the routes no longer viable. In the interim, the annual temporary withdrawal of Lower Airspace Radar Service (LARS) operated by Plymouth Military (Plymouth City was not radar equipped), necessitated all flights being switched to Newquay. Although the airline had hitherto been content to operate under the existing arrangements, a former ASW insider involved in flights operations management claims the decision to re-route flights to Newquay was taken solely on the basis of the airline’s ongoing Safety Management System under corporate risk assessment policy. This is perhaps understandable in the light of published Airprox data that indicates a steady rise in potential mid-air collision incidents in Class G airspace throughout the months April to October. Air Southwest’s final service from Plymouth was a mid-afternoon departure for Glasgow on July 28.
Property speculators had begun eyeing up the airport site as early as 1975 but were largely thwarted by the presence of Brymon and its rapidly developing air services. Concerns for the future resurfaced midway through 2009, when SHH invoked a clause in the lease allowing sale of surplus land. Following the closure of the small cross-runway (16/24), SHH announced that 22 acres (8.9 hectares) were to be made available to a local house-building firm through a phased sale worth £11.8m ($18.3m). This news came hot on the heels of a 40-page master plan for the airport, released in October 2008, that envisaged extension of the runway, an enlarged apron, parking and hangarage, along with other infrastructure and access improvements. All of which was to be theoretically financed by profits from the land sale and predicated on passenger numbers rising to 190,000 by 2013 though there is little evidence of the sale proceeds being allocated to airport regeneration. SHH didn’t respond to enquiries from Airports International on this subject. In reality, in the current hard-nosed financial climate, both the airport and its base airline, operated by dedicated staff and with a loyal local customer base, have suffered from lack of financial backing and support. Another unhelpful factor was the effects of last winter’s harsh weather and the volcanic ash that disrupted operations.
Apart from scheduled air traffic, there has been little else to sustain the airport’s long-term viability. Such other business, in the shape of Beech agent Plymouth Executive Aviation and executive charter firm Air Care both disappeared in the late 1990s, leaving just the Royal Navy (Flag Officer Sea Training) operation, Plymouth School of Flying, a GA facility and the maintenance unit run by British International Helicopters.
Although the Master Plan spoke optimistically about a greater mix between leisure and business traffic, in reality, Plymouth’s airport has in recent times become little more than a status symbol, viewed as an encouragement to inward investment from prestige companies. In this endeavour the city has been very successful in attracting many significant overseas and hi-tech and multi-
national firms. The airport with its links to the capital and other key centres no doubt proved an additional incentive, bearing in mind the less-than-ideal surface transport options. But in the current deep downturn much of this prosperity and employment base has since gradually eroded. Equally, the long-term future of the naval dockyard and its supporting businesses – for many years the city’s major employer – has caused much anxiety of late, especially heightened by major cuts in the defence budget particularly affecting the Royal Navy.
Prospects for tourist traffic by air through Plymouth also appear somewhat doubtful. Exeter, 30 miles to the east and home to Flybe, is capable of handling large jets and thus encourages regular inclusive-tour flights and holiday traffic. Likewise, Newquay (the former RAF St Mawgan), 40 miles north-west, has similar potential, though even with annual passenger figures exceeding 0.3m, it too has struggled to attract replacement business, after both Monarch and Ryanair pulled out three years ago.
Plymouth Airport’s biggest drawback has been that over many years it has been gradually hemmed-in on all sides by major industrial and residential development. This has left little leeway for physical expansion, limiting the main 3,806ft (1,160m) runway to the likes of small STOL feeder airliners and possibly the Avro RJ jet. As early as 1992, controversial plans were mooted for a new commuter airport in South Devon midway between Exeter and Plymouth to replace both these existing sites, but at an estimated cost of £60m ($93m) and with all the potential for local opposition, the idea never got beyond the drawing board.
Despite appalling weather, on Plymouth’s closure day around 60 supporters turned out to mark the event. Amongst them were representatives of Viable (www.viable.org.uk), a local pressure group comprising members of the aviation and business communities and various concerned local interests. Formed to offer a credible alternative scenario, it envisages a £30m ($46.5m) ten-year redevelopment to create “a world class international gateway”, including runway extension, a new terminal and surplus land turned over to commercial use. The plan will be presented to Plymouth City Council, later in January 2012, so see the March 2012 edition of Airports International for more information about its proposals.
The airline and airport closures, with the loss of around 170 jobs, could hardly have come at a worse time, contributing to the area’s stubbornly high unemployment figures. As yet, no firm plans for the site have been formulated and it remains to be seen what will be the ultimate fate of the airport.
Maurice J Wickstead reports on the demise of Plymouth City Airport, UK.