Simon Calder: Balfour declaration puts Blackpool's lights out

The man who pays his way
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

"Balfour Betty" is not a Blackpool landlady distantly related to the early 20th-century prime minister, but a mis-spelling of the construction firm Balfour Beatty. The typo appeared on the online petition calling on the company not to close Blackpool airport. It was corrected on Monday, but by 7pm on Tuesday the owner of the Lancashire airport announced the landing lights would be switched off anyway.

Lord Balfour is often remembered for his nihilist saying: "Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all." Not true for the people of the Fylde Peninsula when trying to save a piece of transport infrastructure. "Blackpool's airport is an absolute necessity to the local community and the tourism industry," declared the petition. "The whole North-west as well as Blackpool will lose one of its vital gateways."

Unfortunately for the signatories, local passions count for little in Britain's ultra-competitive aviation industry. The crucial quantities here are supply and demand. Market forces indicate that Blackpool was a superfluous element of airport supply, and not enough passengers came forward to support it with hard cash spent on plane tickets. Some of the many routes to Blackpool that have come and gone over the years include a frequent Ryanair jet link with Stansted, Thomson's charter programme to the Med, and a prop-jet connection to Biggin Hill in the south-eastern extreme of Greater London.

The Balfour declaration came as no surprise to people who know the aviation business inside out. The investment director for Charles Stanley Securities, Douglas McNeill, spells out an inconvenient truth about airports out on a limb: "Being attached to a small population centre makes an airport vulnerable from the word 'go'. To support international flights, you need to be able to generate enough passengers to fill the fairly large planes that airlines like to use on such routes. If you can't do that, then you're very dependent on intra-UK business."

While Blackpool is at the end of road to nowhere, the county of Lancashire which it punctuates is at the geographic centre of Britain – so nowhere is too far by road or rail. One symbol of terrestrial connectedness is to be restored at 5.25am on 15 December, when the first direct train to London for years is due to depart from Blackpool North. But if you miss it, you'll wait 24 hours for the next through train. It looks a tokenistic once-a-day train to and from the capital; if I had the good fortune to be a Blackpudlian, I would petition for an increase in the service to make the town more accessible.

For overseas visitors contemplating a trip to Britain, Blackpool airport was barely visible. The resort is home to one of the world's most beautiful rooms, the Tower Ballroom. It also has the original Yates's wine lodge, and a Pleasure Beach that isn't actually a beach, but is certainly a pleasure. Yet those attributes meant little to the potential tourist in Spain, Portugal or Turkey. Jet2 planes flying to Blackpool from those lands were notable for the absence of fun-seeking foreigners on board. In contrast, pretty much everyone in the world has heard of Manchester and Liverpool – because of the football clubs and, in the case of the latter, The Beatles.

The final frontier?

So who's next? Another reality check from the wise Mr McNeill: "If Britain needed so many airports, they'd be much better used than they are. Many would never have been built in the first place had the military not bequeathed the basic facilities after the war. There's a clear trend at work here, and it's hard to see what might cause it to reverse. So, further closures are a definite possibility – though if the oil price continues to decline, that might just provide a reprieve for otherwise unprofitable routes."

Looking purely at dwindling passenger numbers over the summer, added to a slump in the past five years, three at-risk airports appear to be Durham Tees Valley, Dundee, and Prestwick. All have "Goliath" airports – big, busy and profitable – close by. Unlike Blackpool, they have financial support from the public sector and can therefore continue on life-support for some time.

Another candidate is Newquay. Like Blackpool, it is stuck out on a peninsula. But Newquay is underpinned by military operations, and is even bidding to become Britain's first spaceport. Until that happy day, Cornwall County Council's taxpayers will probably keep it afloat.

Competition is the key

Scotland has an absurd number of airports for a nation of five million. Even the central belt, taking in Glasgow and Edinburgh, looks oversupplied. Yet the competitive tension between the two cities and their airports seems to be working wonders. As mentioned in Agenda, Scotland's largest city gets its first daily connection with Nova Scotia next summer.

Last November I wrote here about extracting the economies of short-haul flying on a transatlantic route: "There is still room for an innovator to launch links from the north-western UK." WestJet, Canada's answer to easyJet, was reading. I speculated that the route could be from Prestwick to St John's in Newfoundland. WestJet opted for Glasgow-Halifax. The plane continues to Toronto, so passengers can clear immigration and customs at quiet, friendly Halifax.

Air Canada will be miffed; this summer it deployed its low(-ish)-cost subsidiary, Rouge, on the Edinbugh-Toronto route. Looking at fares in the first two weeks of August, WestJet comes in at £445, with Air Canada Rouge £400 more.

The same intense competition that finished off Blackpool airport is opening up new opportunities for British travellers.

Comments