Plymouth loses 'vital link' airport

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The Independent Online

Plymouth City Airport has no option but to close because it does not have enough passengers to justify keeping it open, the head of its parent company said today.

The Sutton Harbour Group (SHG) announced to the Stock Exchange this morning that it would close the loss-making Devon transport hub in December, putting 56 jobs at risk.

Its chief executive, Nigel Godefroy, said the loss in February of flights connecting Plymouth with London, which accounted for half the airport's passengers, coupled with the troubled national economy, meant it was no longer financially viable. The airport is due to make a loss of £1 million this year.

"We have fought tooth and nail to do our best for the city. But we are in a situation where it was not sustainable for a commercial organisation," Mr Godefroy said.

"Ultimately it is all about bums on seats. We were down to less than 100 passengers per day.

"I think the lack of people using the airport indicates it is perhaps not as important (to the city) as I would have hoped and indeed others would have hoped."

SHG has owned the airport for 11 years, during which time it even launched a new airline, Air Southwest, to link Plymouth with London when the previous provider pulled out.

However, the airport had been increasingly marginalised by fierce competition in the South West with larger airports in Newquay and Exeter, and hampered by having a short runway that is unable to accommodate large passenger airliners.

Air Southwest was sold off by SHG in November last year, as it struggled against competition locally from Exeter-based Flybe. Its new owner, Hull-based Eastern Airways, axed a number of routes from Plymouth, including the Gatwick flights, in a bid to cut costs.

Air Southwest said today said it would continue to operate flights from Plymouth until it closed and after that it would operate from Newquay and Bristol.

The latest Civil Aviation Authority figures showed that Plymouth Airport had 128,603 passengers last year, but just 96,498 were passengers using it as a take off or arrival point.

Some of the land at the airport is already earmarked for housing, with a £38 million project in the planning system for homes on what was the airport's disused second runway.

Tim Jones, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, said losing the airport was a huge blow to the city and urged SHG and Plymouth City Council, which owns the land on which it is built, not to use it for housing or any other use. He suggested it could be "mothballed" for five years until the economy picks up.

"Its value as an airport is in excess of £1 billion, that is what it would cost to build again from scratch," he said.

"Using the land for housing would only recoup around £40 million.

"If the city had a motorway or a fast train line this move would be more palatable. But without them the airport is a vital transport link."

David Parlby, chief executive of the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped that the airport could survive as a smaller "aerodrome" set-up.

"It is not good news for Plymouth but it is not entirely unexpected," he said.

"SHG is losing £1 million per year, which is something that is not sustainable. What we would like to see is a scaled down aerodrome version of the airport and an increase in the number of three-hour trains from London to Plymouth, which combined would help lessen the impact of this decision."

Plymouth City Council said it was "disappointed" by the decision to close the airport but understood "the commercial decision as the company has been operating in a difficult and challenging market as seen generally across the regional aviation industry".

A council spokeswoman said: "Under the terms of the lease we have until late December to explore all options for the airport and have been working closely with Sutton Harbour to try and secure a sustainable future for the airport.

"This has included talking to different potential airport operators, 16 commercial airlines as well as the Civil Aviation Authority to examine all possible models for the future running of the airport."

She added that the council had appointed an external accountant to "assess the airport's viability" and commissioned a study to explore "focus on potential new operating models as well as take account of the city's wider transport connectivity".

This will look at the possibility of faster, more frequent trains to London and "securing the new generation fibre optic internet connections for Plymouth".