Tuesday, 13 December 2011

What do we do with Cardiff Airport?

Hat tip to Andrew Davies AM and Click on Wales.

Cardiff Airport is in a hell of a state. Passenger numbers have plummeted over the years from a peak of around 2.1million in 2007 to threatening to fall below the 1 million number this year – the lowest passenger figures for the best part of 15 years. That's a catastrophic turn in fortunes for the airport and something that should concern Welsh politicians.

Niches, needs and propensity to fly

We need to take a look at what types of services Cardiff Airport offers compared to its main rival Bristol Airport.

Cardiff Airport's passenger figures tend to see upward trends when the economy is doing well seeing big rises from 1998-2001, 2003 and 2006-2007. This reflects the flight offer - "bucket and spade" charter flights to sunshine destinations in Europe, internal flights within the UK and the odd "hub" flight, in particular services to Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle. It's very seasonal and dependant on consumer spending on holidays. Proper business destination flights seem to be few and far between.

At first glance, Bristol Airport offers largely the same type of flight on the whole, but there are several key differences. Bristol Airport has managed to attract key "low cost carriers" such as Easyjet and Ryanair which fuelled much of the growth in UK air travel the last few years. Many of these low cost services are to major European cities such as Berlin, Madrid and Rome in addition to major cities in eastern Europe. No doubt such links are useful for business and more affluent travellers.

Then there's the airports themselves. Despite ambitions of expansion, Cardiff Airport's terminal is dated compared to the airy and modern Bristol Airport - which is due to be further expanded in the future. Consumers now expect a certain level of service at airports and however well meaning Cardiff Airport's recent improvements are, I doubt they will ever offer the same level of service you can get at Bristol without a radical overhaul.

Then there's propensity to fly. When the last UK Government consulted on the future of air travel, its figures showed that Wales has lower propensity to fly (0.6) compared to the UK average (1.3) and a small catchment area confined to south Wales, with minimal passengers from west Wales and the south west of England. 65% of air passenger traffic "leaked" from Wales to the likes of Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and the London airports. Only the south west of England and north of England leaked more.

The blame game

There are many targets for blame for Cardiff Airport's decline. Firstly, there's Welsh Government for "not doing enough" or not getting its priorities in order - usually targeting the subsidy for the Anglesey-Cardiff air link, or not backing an improved road link. It's easy to blame them - and in some cases justified - but I've always got the impression they're as frustrated as everyone else.

Then there's the airport's owners Abertis. They are accused of using "sky high" fees to rake passengers and airlines. Fees like landing fees, parking fees and even fees for dropping/picking people up. Cardiff Airport's one-week parking fees for example are amongst the most expensive in the UK. Somehow Cardiff Airport is still profitable, so it's unlikely Abertis will just give it up that easily to another company, cooperative or even the Welsh Government.

The overall management and airlines strategy for the airport has also been brought into question. The failure to attract a major low cost airline has been highlighted as a possible blunder, as attracting Easyjet and Ryanair led to dramatic turnaround in performance at Bristol compared to Cardiff. There was hope that a new Welsh-based low cost carrier, "flyforbeans", would be up and running by now however it looks as though that has been postponed indefinitely for perhaps multiple reasons.

In a bit of good news, Cardiff Airport has managed to attract the Catalan low-cost airline Vueling and a service between Cardiff and Barcelona three times a week. Hopefully this could lead to more destinations in the future and close a gaping hole in Cardiff's offer.

Cardiff Airport's strengths and how to play to them

Firstly Cardiff has a longer runway than Bristol and can comfortable accommodate aircraft like the Boeing 747, which regularly use the British Airways maintenance facility at the airport. If long-haul flights can be enticed to Cardiff, then it would no doubt be a big boost, enabling travellers in Wales and the west of England to fly further without having to use Heathrow. Perhaps there is a case for a "one airport, two-sites" model for a merged Cardiff-Bristol "Severnside" Airport along these lines.

Contrary to popular belief, in my opinion, road access to Cardiff Airport isn't a particular problem and only requires modest improvement. Compared to Bristol, driving to Cardiff Airport is a breeze. The rail link via Rhoose is a welcome USP - albeit not an entirely direct service. It might be useful to have better connections with trains from the west of Wales (requiring junction improvements at Bridgend or service upgrades on the Vale of Glamorgan line). An express bus from the centre of Cardiff has often been thought of as a good idea and I agree. However in Labour's recent National Transport Plan, an express bus has now been pushed back to beyond 2015 which to me is completely inexplicable.

There's also an opportunity for the Welsh Government to throw its backing behind the airport. It's often said their hands are tied by various EU regulations on state support, but that isn't an excuse to not explore alternatives and loopholes. Manchester Airport is co-owned by 10 local authorities via Manchester Airport Group. One of the major loopholes in EU rules on state-aid is that if a government has an interest in an airport, then the rules are relaxed and options for support are opened up.

That could bring Carwyn Jones' hope for an air link to China and the Welsh Conservative manifesto commitment of an air link to North America closer to reality. There is proof that this kind of service is sustainable, as Zoom's service between Cardiff and Vancouver was by all accounts a roaring success until the airline collapsed. I don't doubt that a service to New York could be just as successful.

I think there is too much emphasis on outgoing passengers than incoming passengers. Helvetic Airlines service between Cardiff and Zurich clearly has demand from the Swiss end, but hardly any from the Welsh end, meaning the flight will now stop over at Bristol for the return journey. We might have to accept that Cardiff Airport is probably more likely to be used by incoming tourists than outgoing business travellers and passengers and adapt accordingly – working with local companies and hotels to provide excursions to castles and golf courses direct from the airport for example.

The ghost of Severnside Airport

I hinted above that a "one airport, two sites" model is a possible basis for a Severnside Airport. However was the "real" Severnside ever a goer or just a pipe dream?

The plans for a multi-billion pound airport in the Bristol Channel on an artificial island near Newport were certainly ambitious and promised as many as 13,000 jobs when first mooted. It would've been one hell of an entrance to Wales and indeed the south west of England. However it was claimed that the only way this airport would come about would be with the closure of the existing Cardiff and Bristol airports.

In the current Newport City Council Local Development Plan, the land for the airport island has been put forward as a candidate site. It would be a big statement of intent for the UK Government to drop plans for a "Boris Island" airport in the Thames estuary and instead build it at Severnside together with the phased closure of both Cardiff and Bristol airports, or even retaining Cardiff airport as a freight-only/maintenance-only airport (due to the longer runway).

An airport to the west of Heathrow might relieve some of the current pressure there, and with an appropriate upgrade to the south wales mainline, be readily accessible by public transport, negating the need for an expensive project at Heathrow.

Unfortunately there are several problems that make the Severnside project nothing more than an idealistic fantasy project. Firstly the obvious environmental concerns, secondly Bristol is unlikely to be satisfied losing "their airport" and thirdly the UK government is unlikely to put a single penny towards such a large, risky project in Wales – where the likelihood of a return is less compared to "Boris Island".

That's the trouble with Wales in the UK. Always the bridesmaid....


  1. You can add John Redwood to the blame for privatising the airport in the 1990s.

    The UK Government for constantly focusing on Heathrow rather than the other airports. They could for example cut air passenger duty for regional airports outside London. How about devolving this power to Wales like its being considered to Scotland?

    'Boris Island Airport' is not a bad idea, UK airlines like BA would benefit if London became a super-hub and would be able to compete with the likes of CDG, Frankfurt, and Schipol. Heathrow and Gatwick are way too congested and badly run.

    The Welsh Government needs to do whatever it can too pull its weight behind any airline thats prepared to establish a hub at Cardiff Airport. This airline should be interline (through connections) and not point to point. It can take over the subsidised Anlesey link, allowing passengers from the north to make connections at Cardiff. This would increase CWL's catchment area. Scotland has Loganair, a franchise of Flybe which connects rural areas with its Glasgow hub. We could have the same.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anon.

    I believe APD is on the list of possible devolved taxes in the Silk Commission's sights. Carwyn Jones has already mnetioned it ifI remember correctly so it looks like those powers will come eventually.

    I can understand the focus on London for air travel it's a global mega city after all. By building "Boris Island" it might just make the situation at smaller airport slike Cardiff and indeed Bristol even worse. It would probably start to have an impact on PAX figures at the likes of Luton, Stanstead and Birmingham. If the coalition want to rebalance the UK economy they need to rebalance their thinking too. London can't be the be all and end all for their sake (overpopulation and overdevelopment) and ours.

    As much as I'd like to see the WG back "any airline thats prepared to establish a hub at Cardiff Airport", the Welsh Government seem reluctant to want to take a risk - either breach EU state aid rules or buy a stake in the airport - to enable them to throw their weight behind potentially interested airlines.

    I'm not a critic of the Anglesey air link but I I would like to see it run commercially ASAP and your point about Cardiff becoming important for connecting passengers from NW Wales is important in making the link commercially viable or attractive. But it could be a case of chicken and eggs - do the connecting flights need to be there first, or an improved N-S air link?