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Wonders of the Western Group world: 3. Runway's end at Plymouth?
publication date: Nov 29, 2013
author/source: Dave Moss
by Dave Moss
Amongst the many sad tales of trials and tribulations in aviation history, the story of Plymouth City airport's still-recent demise is particularly poignant, for it embraces the loss not just of an historic airport facility, but also the serial demise of several airlines which, over a period of many years provided both transport and employment for those living and working in the region.
Flying began around 1923 from what was then the delightfully rural Roborough polo ground. The Air Ministry extended the field and provided permanent facilities in the next few years, after which it was bought by the City Council, and formally opened as Roborough airport by HRH the Prince of Wales in summer 1931. Plymouth then became the destination for flights from Cardiff - the very first route introduced by Railway Air Services. Links between other new municipal airports followed, and the Royal Navy and RAF used the site as a training location during World War 2.
Commercial operations resumed when Plymouth became an intermediate stop on a Jersey Airways Channel Islands service, and another now defunct but once well known airline, Dan-Air, established several routes in the 1960's, including the first London Gatwick service. Afterwards several short-lived west country airline operations came and went, but by the mid 1970's Plymouth City airport was finally showing signs of taking off, helped along by another now defunct regional airline, Brymon Airways.
Brymon began channel island services in 1973, and leased the entire airport site two years later, investing heavily in the early 1980's with a multi-million pound modernisation scheme involving a new terminal block and installation of advanced aircraft landing aids. Brymon's network grew steadily: a Gatwick service was re-established and a handful of international services introduced - at which point Plymouth's biggest limitation was increasingly apparent. A main runway extension to 3806ft/1160 metres had allowed use of the then-popular BAe 146 "whisper jet," but it was simply not enough to accommodate the ever-larger aircraft increasingly preferred by airline operators.
By 1987, Brymon was heavily involved in introducing services from the new London City airport - but Plymouth was not among them. A large stake in the company had been sold to aid financing of the airport's expansion and obtain new aircraft, and a sea-change in the company's direction began after a 1985 management buyout, which saw a significant share going to British Airways. (BA) In the 1990's Brymon set up its operating base at Bristol, later becoming a wholly owned BA subsidiary. Its corporate identity disappeared when the short-lived BA CitiExpress regional operation was created in 2002 - though two years earlier, specialist property company Sutton Harbour holdings, previously best known for waterside infrastructure investments in the south west, had taken on the Plymouth airport lease.
Brymon's arrival and the route network it developed underpinned Plymouth airport's commercial viability for almost 25 years. Unofficial figures show just over 2000 passengers transited the site in 1972: by 1982 the figure was 130,000, and more recent CAA figures reveal a 125,000 passenger throughput in 2001. The turning point came with cost and route cutting at CitiExpress: BA axed all Plymouth routes in 2003. Somewhat surprisingly Sutton Harbour holdings then stepped in, creating a new budget-priced commuter airline from scratch, focussed on Plymouth's best-used route to Gatwick Passenger numbers hovered around the 100,000 mark for a while, helped by a handful of Air Wales services, but commercial airports need more routes and more passengers than this for sustainability - and Air Wales abandoned passenger flights in 2006.
Air Southwest carried on alone: by 2009 it offered 11 scheduled destinations from Plymouth, including London City airport, on which passenger numbers never really materialised. With losses building the airline was put on sale, and late in 2010 a deal was struck with Eastern Airways. Industry-watchers regarded this as curious, and their scepticism proved well founded when the Gatwick service - regarded by many as the only significant jewel in the Air South West crown - was ended in February 2011.
Without the Gatwick link Plymouth City Airport's fate was effectively sealed. Recriminations and critical press exposure followed, in which the route closure was attributed to rising costs and competition from budget airline Flybe, which had then recently opened a Newquay to Gatwick route. Two months later came the announcement that Plymouth Airport would close, with losses predicted around £1m resulting from the Gatwick route closure. With advance bookings reputedly falling, a decision to cease Air Southwest operations followed: the last service departed Plymouth on July 28th 2011, and the airport closed on December 23rd.
Plymouth is far from the first regional airport to become a victim of location, circumstance, lack of foresight - and possibly missed opportunity, since the writing has been on the wall since the 1970's. Though doubling Plymouth's runway length might once have been feasible, today new building in the vicinity makes it highly unlikely - even without considering the many and various other significant issues which bear hard on modern airport operations.
Since closure became public knowledge, a vociferous local pressure group has emerged with grandiose plans to revitalise Plymouth airport, costed at £25m-£30m. The site is secured for aviation until 2021 by Plymouth City Council, which is on record as broadly supportive of retaining an airport facility. However, responding to earlier public consultation, the leaseholders have submitted plans for housing re-development. Council-commissioned research in 2010 noted high airport standing costs, few potentially viable routes and lukewarm local demand - a situation where the unspoken word "subsidy" weighs heavily.
With bigger airports already struggling, commercially-focussed operators seem unlikely to find the prospect of restarting air services especially attractive. Forever marginal, this now looks like an airport out of time. Though no decision appears imminent, today, alternative development seems a far more likely outcome than a newly reborn commercial airport for Plymouth.