Airlines cut off the North as economic woe takes its toll

Flights to Leeds-Bradford and Durham-Tees Valley are removed from the schedules

Heathrow handles more international passengers than any other airport in the world – but, from the end of next month, new arrivals will be unable connect to West Yorkshire or Teesside.

As airlines scale back operations in the recession, airports across the north of England are losing long-haul, European and domestic routes. And, after four decades, BMI is ending its flights from Heathrow to Leeds-Bradford and Durham-Tees Valley.

“The decision to withdraw services between London and the north of England was a tough one,” the airline told frequent travellers in an email. It blames falling demand, above-inflation charges at Heathrow and increasing Air Passenger Duty (APD), which “have made operating these routes unsustainable”.

Travellers from West Yorkshire and Teesside have good rail and road links with London, but the closures are likely to hit some businesses. Many passengers using the routes to Leeds-Bradford and Durham-Tees Valley are connecting from international flights; removing the airports from the destination screens at Britain’s main aviation hub will do nothing to boost the regions’ images abroad.

Ross Smith, head of policy for the North East Chamber of Commerce, said “We need to make sure Tees Valley is as accessible as possible. We’d like the Government to give protection to regional slots, especially in the context of the expansion of Heathrow”. If the third runway goes ahead, regional airports are pressing for a certain number of slots to be “ring-fenced” for UK domestic links.

BMI, formerly British Midland, has operated the North-east links since 1969. It was at the forefront of aviation liberalisation in Europe, but another two of its routes – the pioneering links from Heathrow to Amsterdam and Dublin – will have their capacities cut when the summer schedules begin on 29 March. The company is also deploying smaller aircraft on services linking Heathrow with Brussels and Aberdeen.

The airline’s regional base at Leeds-Bradford will remain. John Parkin, chief executive of Leeds-Bradford airport, called the decision to end Heathrow flights “disappointing”, but said: “We expect to be in a position to announce new services to the capital shortly.”

Manchester, the busiest airport outside the London area, had another high-profile route cancelled yesterday, when Thomson Airways said its scheduled link with Tel Aviv will end in April. The airline’s commercial director, David Burling, said: “For summer 2009 we need to prioritise our aircraft to more traditional holiday destinations”.

Last October, British Airways withdrew its Manchester-New York service, its last route that neither began nor ended in London. And Singapore Airlines, which links Manchester with south-east Asia, is to scale back services from May. A spokesman for Manchester Airport said: “We are disappointed with the announcement from Singapore Airlines, but we understand in the current conditions airlines are having to look at their entire route network, so changes were expected.”

Ryanair is cutting 10 European routes from Liverpool airport, blaming UK government taxes on travellers. Three services to each of Poland and Spain will be axed, along with links to Germany, Portugal and Hungary.

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