Viable?

When Plymouth City Airport closed on December 23, 2011, a local support group marked the occasion by unveiling protest banners in the terminal building. This banner refers to Plymouth City Council’s investment in the local football club at a time when the airport was being allowed to close. (Rob Springett)

Although Plymouth City Airport closed its doors on December 23, 2011, a local group is still fighting to re-open it.  Tom Allett reports.


When Plymouth City Airport closed on December 23, 2011, a local support group marked the occasion by unveiling protest banners in the terminal building. This banner refers to Plymouth City Council’s investment in the local football club at a time when the airport was being allowed to close. (Rob Springett)



For now at least, Plymouth City Airport’s 86 years of service to the southwest of England ended on December 23, 2011, (see the January/February 2012 edition of Airports International for more details).  Many observers fear that the airport’s land will eventually be redeveloped and that the profits from the land sale will be split between the land owner Plymouth City Council (PCC) and the leaseholder Sutton Harbour Group (SHG).
Upon hearing the news that Plymouth Airport was set to close at the end of 2011, Raoul Witherall, a local businessman, thought it simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen.
Mr Witherall told Airports International: “Being based in Plymouth I was aware that its air links are important to the city’s business potential.  I heard the news that the airport was closing down and expected that at some point someone would step in and save it, but nobody did.  As time went on I decided to do something about it.
“I spoke to several people that I know in order to find out what the airport’s situation was and it became apparent to me that its closure was more complicated than a simple viability case.”
Until August 2011 Mr Witherall was still hoping that PCC would step in to save the airport, but when that didn’t happen he decided to act.  In response to the airport being deemed “unviable” by its operating company, he chose ‘Viable’ as the name for his rescue effort launched last October.
“We invited interested parties to a meeting at our premises in Plymouth.  We were expecting around 20-30 people to turn up, but it attracted over 100.  Today we have around 250 members, most of whom are either business people or those who have been directly involved in the airport’s operation in some way.”
Viable was due to put its rescue plans to PCC soon after this edition went to print, but the reality is that the council already knows about Viable, its pro-airport argument and all the issues that are involved.  “However,” said Mr Witherall, “what became apparent after the closure was that, even if the political will and money to run the airport was available ‘tomorrow’, there wasn’t anyone to run it.  So, although Viable was originally set up to stop the airport from closing by asking for a judicial review, now that it has closed we have changed tack and formed a holding company – Viable Plymouth – that has a solid business plan to re-open the airport and develop it at a steady pace.
“The first thing to say is that if anyone wants to know if the airport can be run profitably: yes, it can. Our first year plan shows a profit on fixed costs against fixed revenue. Anything above that would be ‘cream’.
“It would have to re-open on a reduced basis as the business has been run down, but having an airport in the city is important to the Royal Navy, and critical services such as the Police, Air Ambulance and Search and Rescue helicopter operations, which have a long history of service from the airport.  There is also a flying school and a strong general aviation community.”
Mr Witherall pointed out that Viable is talking with the Civil Aviation Authority and the other necessary experts on the operational side of things and that the Viable Plymouth company would provide the airport’s commercial management.  He also underlines the need to re-launch the airport on a gradual basis.
“We would want to re-open the airport as a licensed Fire Category 2 airfield to start with because we need to minimise the initial overheads.  Then, when we get to a point where the business is stable and we are happy with its progress, we would upgrade the license to Cat 3 status.  At that point, which I expect would be within one to two years of re-opening, we would launch a new start-up airline operating scheduled services.
“It would be a ‘sister’ to the airport company, within the same group, as this arrangement has been shown historically to work well for Plymouth.”
The team driving the airport’s revival plan already has considerable business experience.  Mr Witherall said that Malcolm Naylor, who originally set up Air Southwest, has completed the business case for a new Plymouth-based airline and that it is “solid and ready to go.”
He added: “It is worth noting that this is Malcolm’s business, his profession, and he simply wouldn’t get involved if he didn’t think it would be viable.”
Ultimately the objective is to get the runway extended to the maximum possible length within the airport’s existing boundary; 4,327ft (1,319m) plus 393ft (120m) Runway End Safety Areas at each end.  It would be upgraded to CAT II ILS status at the same time and have 196ft (60m) clearways and a taxiing loop.
With those facilities in place Plymouth would then have the same type of operational capabilities as London City Airport, thereby enabling 100-seat jets to serve European hubs and point-to-point destinations direct from there.
Mr Witherall said: “There is a strong case to introduce better air links to Plymouth and a question remains about why the last lot [SHG] didn’t do that,” adding: “property development companies should not be allowed control of the UK’s airfields and marginal air services.
“The money SHG raised – about £15 million – from selling some of the airport’s surplus land wasn’t reinvested in the airport as publicised when agreed.  With that sum of money available to spend, the runway should have been extended.”
He denied that any future operation would need a major financial backer, saying: “Our requirements are limited to working capital so we are confident that we can make this happen if there is the political will to enable it.”
The current leaseholder, SHG, cannot redevelop the airport’s land for any alternative use, such as housing or retail developments, without the city council’s permission.  The law states that a two year ‘cooling-off’ period is necessary before any change of use permission can be granted, so the airport should remain intact until at least December 2013.  In addition, Mr Witherall says that the council has already written to SHG to say that it must not dispose of any of the airport’s existing infrastructure without its specific permission.
Looking at the options available to the council, it has the power, if supported by local business lobbies, to prevent any change of land use indefinitely.  So, as the airport land would only appear to have any value to its current owners if it can be used for another kind of development, it appears that the council holds most of the ‘Aces’ in this situation.
Of course, nobody would want to prevent the airport’s redevelopment into something else unless there is a workable business plan in place to run it successfully as an airport, but Viable says that it can be done.
Mr Witherall concluded by saying: “The Plymouth area doesn’t have a vast number of assets working in its favour so it has to make the best of what it does have.
“Plymouth needs air links in order to prosper and we can’t rely on anyone from outside of the area or even overseas to provide them.  We need to run this locally.  We need to get the airport back under public ownership again and then we can move forward.”