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Countdown to Plymouth City Airport debate: Day two - Viable's view

By Plymouth Herald  |  Posted: September 19, 2012

Raoul Witherall

Raoul Witherall

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In the second part of our debate, Viable Chairman Raoul Witherall states the case for re-opening the airport and extending the runway.

Up until a few years ago it was possible to take a plane from anywhere in the world and arrive into Plymouth with just one stop at London Heathrow.

That is the kind of connectivity that most cities would bite your arm off for. And it is the kind of connectivity that business partners in the world’s fast emerging economies are looking for in the UK.

As was feared at the time, losing access to Heathrow resulted in companies with international connections one by one drifting away from Plymouth. Perhaps you or a family member once worked for Toshiba, Murata, Tecalimit, Standard Products, Eatons, Halliburton, Sifam, STC Nortel, AchesonStafford Miller, Gleason or American Golf.

Since then, Plymouth’s connections have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where we are now crossing our fingers for a three hour rail journey to Heathrow which will still require a change at Reading ...in 10 years’ time.

Plymouth’s airport is not and never will be a Gatwick or Stansted. It is a destination, not a hub airport and one limited by factors such as runway length, the build up of neighbouring residential developments and impacted by others such as the weather. But these factors did not prevent the airport from serving Plymouth well for 85 years. And it is possible to reduce marginality and optimise the airport with a number of simple measures. Moreover we believe it is possible to transform Plymouth’s airport into a superb fit-for-purpose facility that will more than serve the city’s air transport needs and help drive economic growth over the next 100 years.

We should recognise the importance of aviation to the Royal Navy and dockyard operations. Our city needs to do all it can to make itself a viable naval base and this means helicopters to support surface ship training and good transport links to other elements of defence support services.

Elsewhere, the airport has literally been a lifeline to Derriford Hospital supporting Air Ambulance, Search and Rescue (SAR) and transplant organ movements. The NHS is now needlessly facing a huge investment in a heliport to support its role as Trauma Centre South West.

And who hasn’t been on a crowded train recently and seen scores of people standing in the aisles? Plymouth Airport’s 120,000 passengers haven’t gone away. They have moved to other modes of transport. A re-opened airport can only be a good thing to alleviate overcrowding on our creaking railway.

So what is Viable proposing were it to reopen and operate Plymouth airport? Well, firstly, we would reinstate scheduled air passenger services to keep Plymouth in business. This includes opening routes to London Stansted, Manchester and Dublin which between them provide onward connections to 264 destinations in 63 different countries including the USA, Canada, India, Europe, Africa and the West Indies.

Secondly, we would extend the runway eastwards from its present 1,160m to 1,199m, the maximum that the Civil Aviation Authority will license on the available width of airfield.

With the addition of just 120 feet extra runway and a further 270 feet of grassed overshoot safety area, Plymouth will for the first time be able to handle aircraft that are commonly operated by today’s airlines. Moreover, these modern aircraft are lower in emissions and significantly quieter than the planes designed 30 years ago, meaning Plymouth airport will be a better neighbour. In time, we believe that this model will allow a growing number of routes to operate from Plymouth serving destinations as far as Spain and Italy with modern 115 seater jets.

In addition, Viable envisages developing modern facilities on and around the airport to enhance the aviation business. This means that the airport will form the centrepiece of major inward investment and regeneration that will help create jobs and value in the city. In the future, passengers travelling to and from Plymouth will not access the airport down a badly-lit country lane but via modern terminal facilities that show the city off to its best.

All of this will be delivered without a requirement for council funds; the airport can be run privately and profitably. Viable has taken a long hard look at the numbers and identified a number of untapped revenue opportunities and lower overhead modes of operation that will see the business stay in profit as it grows to scale.

One often repeated argument against Plymouth retaining its airport is that Exeter airport is just up the road. This may be true now but Exeter competes against Bristol and Bournemouth for the same low-cost holiday market and this renders it vulnerable. Falling passenger numbers and a loss making base airline have raised serious questions about its longevity.

In either case, the airport at Exeter competes for business from Plymouth. Why would any investor look at Plymouth with slow train and dual carriageway connections when Exeter has high speed rail, two hour motorway to London and Birmingham and an international airport. No, we wish Exeter well but not at Plymouth’s expense. We are in competition and need to look after our own interests.

But is Viable up to the job of financing, running, growing and developing the airport? The answer is a clear yes. Our Board has grown recently with the addition of Terry Linge, former director at Plymouth City Airport. Working with him, Viable has designated individuals to head up the air traffic and fire fighting services who bring the necessary experience and qualifications with them. And, most importantly, Viable’s Board has years of experience in financing and developing infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds and delivering these for international clients.

This all sounds very good, but will we ever get back into Heathrow? Well this depends on government policy but with the Davies Commission to report back in 2015, we could well see one of three options recommended. Either Northolt will be opened to short haul and regional traffic with a reoriented runway and 15 minute transit to Heathrow; or approval will be given for Heathrow’s third runway; or approval will be given to develop a major multi runway London hub in the Thames Estuary. Our view is that Northolt is the most likely outcome as an interim step towards the Thames Estuary airport. If this happens, you could well be flying from Plymouth to Northolt and transiting to Heathrow in as little as seven years from now.

So should Plymouth build shops and student flats on its airport? We think not and we hope you will support Viable in its bid to keep Plymouth connected with the world.

Viable holds monthly meetings at the Future Inn Derriford to keep members and the public updated on developments. The next public meeting is this coming Tuesday September 25 at 6:15pm

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  • b_mused  |  September 20 2012, 11:07PM

    Partly right davyth1 - we need Plymouth to London City for business (and leisure) plus Manchester and Paris (and Dublin and Amsterdam) for long haul connections, business and a bit of tourism as well. The Viable list published last week looks pretty good in my view. Use Exeter for sun flights though.

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  • davyth1  |  September 20 2012, 11:19AM

    J class, you are wrong - Exeter does link you to the world, go to the Etihad website, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates and you can book a single ticket from Exeter to Johannesburg, Bangkok, Singapore, Sydney, Tehran, Nairobi and around 20 other cities in the middle east and Asia Pacific. Go to the Air France website and you can also book flights from Exeter to Budapest, Madrid, Zagreb, Copenhagen, Prague, Stockholm etc..... Why do you need London when you can transit in Paris or Manchester for a lot less hassle?!

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  • hstmtu4000  |  September 20 2012, 10:23AM

    The reality is that Exeter airport thanks to its long runway will always be able to offer a much wider range of destinations than Plymouth particularly the "bucket and spade" destinations.But there is one key area where it falls down big time and that is it does not serve the crucial time conscious London business markets simply because Exeter is as little as 2 hours rail journey time to London Paddington. Plymouth is and always will be another crucial hour rail journey time beyond Exeter thanks to the historical legacy of Brunels slow sinuous speed restricted rail route west of Exeter and with little hope of improvement either without major and I mean MAJOR rail infrastructure investment.Recent events have also shown that Plymouth has effectively been sidelined by the Government rail investment wise on the Great Western train franchise.That may be Ok maybe for the leisure market but not the crucial time conscious business market. Therefore without a direct airlink into London,Plymouth faces an uphill battle in the 21st century to get investors/top executives from our London centric economy to bypass Exeter with all its transport advantages to come to Plymouth with all its transport disadvantages. We all know that Plymouth is a wonderful place to live and play once your here but getting to it from London using stagnating surface transport links wont bring in much the needed investment and jobs.They will continue to be hoovered up by Exeters fast growing well connected economy. Thats the main reason why Plymouth needs its own airport in the 21st century.

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  • lindsay_j  |  September 20 2012, 9:39AM

    My husband and I regularly used the Plymouth to Gatwick service for leisure activities both here and for onward travel abroad and only rarely were there empty seats, and when there were, these were very few and far between. As for luggage, that was no problem at all as for foreign travel we always took two large suitcases from Plymouth to Gatwick. I am sure the business people as well as those who used the service for leisure, miss it as much as we do.

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  • rationaldog  |  September 20 2012, 9:05AM

    A pair of landing slots at Heathrow will cost you about £20 million, Gatwick about £10 million.

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  • jclass  |  September 20 2012, 7:17AM

    "If there was money to be made from a Plymouth airport it will stil be there, profit and loss makes it viable it is not! Exeter 40 mins away and Newquay it is not required, ps perhaps a good place for a second incinerator money in that!" - It was viable (still no pun intended) throughout Brymon and BA's operation, but ceased to be almost immediately that SHH took over the operation under a new lease which granted them 25% of any profits made from the sale of the land made in the event that the Airport became uneconomical to run. "Commerially it is not Viable - Who just who would want it as a profit making business - If it was vible dont you think Easyjet - Flybe - Virgin etc etc would move in - they wouldnt even have to invest in aircraft. True it made a small profit when Brymon was operational, But reality is that BA saw the opportumity -took it over and subsidised the operation for as long as it took to consolidate prime landing slots at Heathrow." - Again, it was a profit making business, even under BA, if it comes down to slot valuations vs revenue per slot then a 747-400 will obviously win, but that doesn't remove the Gatwick argument, BA continued to make that work too until it started focussing its operations at Bristol when it started to move from being a domestic carrier in the 1990's. Without going into the basic details of aircraft operational capabilities - Easyjet, different market, Flybe, Exeter hub, Newquay (failing) base, Virgin, different market, only just starting a limited domestic service. Plymouth requires a totally different approach, but provided there's no taxpayer's money being spent, I can't imagine too many people would complain about the service being there again would there?

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  • Mark2Plym  |  September 19 2012, 11:49PM

    If there was money to be made from a Plymouth airport it will stil be there, profit and loss makes it viable it is not! Exeter 40 mins away and Newquay it is not required, ps perhaps a good place for a second incinerator money in that!

  • ella_romanos  |  September 19 2012, 10:49PM

    I own a business in Plymouth and truly believe we need the airport reopened. The local area needs the economy to grow and travel is one of the biggest factors stopping that happening because it's just too inconvenient. I actually find it hard to believe that people are against it, except for their own personal reasons - they don't seem to be considering the wider and longer term implications to their community, which impacts on all areas of the economy including jobs. I do have one very serious concern with the Viable proposal though, which is that Stansted is proposed as the first place for flights to land in London. To get to central London via Stansted would take at least as much time as getting a train, would be more hassle and would probably cost more. The flights to London really need to land at City, Heathrow or Gatwick - so that you either land in the centre, or have an express train straight to it. I understand that there are reasons why this is more difficult, but I truly believe that we need to overcome those before reopening if the airport is to be a success. I think that if we start out with Stansted, people will mostly only use it if they are flying out of the country from Stansted, which must account for a fairly small percentage of the potential Plymouth-London trips for local business people.

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  • lweston  |  September 19 2012, 10:04PM

    Mendip Exactly - Commerially it is not Viable - Who just who would want it as a profit making business - If it was vible dont you think Easyjet - Flybe - Virgin etc etc would move in - they wouldnt even have to invest in aircraft. True it made a small profit when Brymon was operational, But reality is that BA saw the opportumity -took it over and subsidised the operation for as long as it took to consolidate prime landing slots at Heathrow.

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  • FromMendip  |  September 19 2012, 8:27PM

    "24 passengers per hour x 14 hours is about 9 full Dash 8-200 aircraft....I would say that had potential."" It would be rapidly ageing equipment as the 200 series (and the 300) ceased production three years ago with the 100 series ending in 2005. Only the 400 remains in production which is too big for PLH with any meaningful load. The 9 full aircraft really means between four and five rotations (return trips) a day. It needs considerably more than that if PLH is to succeed. Even the statement near the beginning of the article - Up until a few years ago it was possible to take a plane from anywhere in the world and arrive into Plymouth with just one stop at London Heathrow - is an exaggeration because LHR doesn't have routes to 'everywhere in the world'. The article also implies that the loss of several high-profile companies from Plymouth is due to the lack of an airport. Somewhere like Bristol has also lost similarly-sized companies despite having a successful airport - 6 million passengers a year - including a dozen or more daily legacy carrier connections to large or major European hubs at Amsterdam, Paris Cdg, Brussels and Dublin. Hstory should have brought one airport for Devon and Cornwall and the neighbouring bits of Somerset and Dorset which should have been in the Plymouth area on both geographical and population grounds. It didn't so the best must be made of what is available at Exeter and to a lesser extent Newquay. The UK is littered with examples of airports being in the wrong place - Plymouth is not alone in this.

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