The man who pays his way

"The call it 'international' because there's one charter flight a week from Switzerland in the summer." Paul Curtin works close to the airport that is about to become the fastest-growing in Britain: Newquay Cornwall, the official title that the Prince of Wales bestowed upon it in 1994. I guess that the intention was not to emulate the American style of "Memphis Tennessee", but to boost the catchment area. (The airport serving the Welsh capital, "Cardiff Wales", has the same affectation.)

From next month, the present four flights a day to Gatwick, using small propeller aircraft, are to be joined by a brand-new Ryanair Boeing 737, carrying 189 people from Stansted. Well, it has 189 seats, though no one knows how many of those will be filled. Essex and Cornwall have never been linked by air before.

The man whose job it is to place bums on those seats is so single-minded about the venture that he took his family for a February holiday in Newquay. It was, he says, horrible – at least the car journey was. "The physical distance is bad enough," says Tim Jeans, marketing director for Ryanair. "Newquay is over 300 miles from London. And with the parlous state of British infrastructure, offering a one-hour flight has to be tempting."

People who have sat in summer traffic jams on what is amusingly called the A30 Expressway may concur. Even when the rail line from Newquay is open (which it isn't at the moment), the quickest train journey from the capital is a good five hours. The excuse provided for my recent trip taking considerably longer was a novel one: "Sheep on the line between Tiverton Parkway and Taunton." Presumably the wrong kind of breed at that.

¿ To jolly things along, Tim Jeans will be aboard a proving flight from Stansted to the Cornish airport on Tuesday. But any of the assorted dignitaries, Cornish tourism bigwigs and journalists who are expecting to land at a tinpot airfield will be surprised to find themselves touching down at one of Britain's biggest airports, at least in terms of the vast area it covers. That is because Newquay Cornwall international airport is actually the civilian arm of RAF St Mawgan, one of the UK's key strategic bases, endowed with a runway to match Heathrow.

¿ The Boeing will not drop you in the middle of the throbbing metropolis that is Newquay, mind – even though the town council produces an optimistic map showing its airport perched handily on the eastern edge of town, not far from the rail station. From my experience on Monday, I know that to be far from the case, but I am still not sure exactly how far it is. Cornish miles, as we will see in a moment, constitute a slippery quantity.

"I don't believe it," said the driver of bus 556 as I boarded close to the seafront in Newquay. "I've actually got a passenger who wants to go to the airport."

So rare an event is this that he was obliged to dig around to find the fare for this unusual destination (£1.60 single, £2.40 return). It is a shame so few people take the ride: his once-every-two-hours bus from Newquay comprises one of the finest airport links in the world. It starts by swishing along the coast road from Newquay, then climbs sharply for grand views all the way along the coast.

Not far beyond Newquay town limits you encounter a corner of the airport – but you are still a long way from the terminal. Beyond some serious fortifications, a towering radar peers into the skies. In front of it is a barrier marked "Crash Gate No 7" – always a reassuring sign for anxious flyers.

Soon, though, you are back in a Cornish village, speckled with palms and with a cottage called Heartsease. The road, and the bus, slaloms down to Watergate Bay, an attractive gap in the cliffs that also happens to be the home of the Extreme Academy surfing school (now that's an intriguing option if your flight is delayed). Regaining the plateau on which the runway rests, at last you spot a right-turn sign to the airport.

The bus drives straight on, at speed. I am reminded that scenes from the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour were filmed in Newquay. The driver notes my brow furrowing and promises: "We're coming back in a minute." After a quick loop around the village of Trevarrian, pausing at the airport's nearest pub – which, pleasingly, is named The Traveller's Rest – the bus takes the turn to Newquay Cornwall airport, now barely a mile distant.

Luckily, the driver does not blink, so we do not miss the terminal. It is about the size of a Premier League footballer's house, but with some interesting variations not normally found chez soccer players or international airports. There is a café, but this one has the unusual sideline of a secondhand bookstall. It sells tea for 45p a cup, which I venture is the lowest price at any airport in the UK (and less than half what you pay for a cuppa on Ryanair). The taxi rank is notable for not having any cabs for hire. The interior décor is challenging: lime-green walls, with carpet that changes in shade near the check-in area from turquoise to mauve.

Just as people keen to improve their homes might not beat a path to Newquay Cornwall, the airport is not the destination of choice for every plane-spotter. Beside the existing BA flight to Gatwick, the new Ryanair flight and that elusive Zurich flight, the only other departures that I can find are occasional flights to the Scilly Isles. The company that flies there plans to dovetail its services, with the intention of connecting Stansted with Scilly in two hours.

¿ Those of the 189 passengers who are not flying straight to Scilly could put some serious pressure on the 556 bus, which is built for a maximum of two dozen passengers. Handily, Ryanair is putting on a bus of its own to serve Newquay, the Eden Project and St Austell.

Passengers will get an instant introduction to the concept of the Cornish mile. Shortly after leaving the airport, a signpost promises "Newquay 4". After about one (standard) mile towards town, the assurance changes to "Newquay 5".

¿ Perhaps the town is a parallel universe. That is certainly the case for anyone misguidedly planning to reach Newquay by train. The branch line has been out of action all week, with trains replaced by 53-seater coaches. I don't know which is sadder for people who like rail travel: the fact that I was one of only two passengers aboard the bus on Monday lunchtime, or that the coach, even on the narrow roads of rural Cornwall, managed to beat the scheduled rail time by 10 minutes.

¿ The French, inevitably, have taken the replacement bus service to its inevitable conclusion, by spoiling their passengers rotten. The new Thomas Cook European Timetable reveals that travellers from Boulogne hoping to connect with the first Train à Grande Vitesse from Calais to Paris should not worry about the absence of a connecting train. French Railways will lay on a cab.

If it is more economical for SNCF to provide a chauffeur-driven car than provide a bus or train, then good luck to them (and the fortunate passengers). At least this looks a bit like a joined-up transport policy.