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