13 DECEMBER 2010
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Plymouth, and West Country air services have reached a crossroads with the sale of Air Southwest to Eastern Airways (see below). What the future holds both for the city and local airline remains a question mark.
Air Southwest is the rump of the former successful Brymon Airways (all the aircraft and even some of the staff) whilst Eastern is a competent and profitable operation based at Humberside Airport, and created in 1997.
Plymouth is the working capital of Cornwall and Devon and with a population of close to 400,000, easily the largest city in the region. It is a difficult 200-mile drive from London and has poor railway connections. For centuries it vied with Portsmouth as the home of the Royal Navy and has one of the world’s finest natural harbours. As a tourist area it is sublime.
During the Second World War a full scale military airfield was allowed to be built on the beautiful moors surrounding the city but this was returned to nature with the end of hostilities, leaving Plymouth the only major conurbation in the country without a proper airport.
At the end of the 1970s, Brymon Airways, under the direction of the late Bill Bryce, developed Roborough, the city’s grass runway aerodrome, as a proper tarmac operation. He was followed by the late Charles Stuart, a former high flyer at British Airways, and a visionary who further developed the airfield but made the crucial mistake of not extending the runway sufficiently for the new generation of 100-seat jet aircraft. To this day the BAE Avro and Embraer E series’ aircraft cannot operate into Plymouth City Airport (except with a reduced load – although there is an argument that with residual values now for the older jets the working parameters have changed).
Bryce introduced services between Plymouth and Heathrow and both the airline and city prospered - Brymon becoming the lead carrier for the London City Airport project and Plymouth gaining major international companies, including BAE and Panasonic.
With new management lacking long term vision Brymon pulled out of London City, and Air France took over its obligations. British Airways purchased the airline, dropping the highly successful Heathrow route. The slots could be used by larger and commercially more attractive aircraft. Gatwick, as an alternative to the world’s most important international centre, does not really work. The connections were lost. Major companies left Plymouth and finding replacements became more difficult.
Bryce had purchased a long lease on Roborough in order to substantiate the airline. In 2003 British Airways sold the airline/airport package to Sutton Harbour Plc, a local property developer who re-invented Brymon as Air Southwest. What their real motives were has to be debated but a runway development never went ahead and last year they were given permission to build up one of the two runways as a housing development (with the new neighbours certain to complain about the noise – a not dissimilar situation to Heathrow but on a smaller scale).
Air Southwest, whilst well known locally, did not get the same national exposure as Brymon which may have been a contributory factor to unsustainable losses. In any event earlier this year Air Southwest was put up for sale by the Plc, Eastern emerging as the new owner. Sutton Harbour still retains the lease, the ultimate owner Plymouth City Council.
There is a very strong argument that lifeline routes into Heathrow should be ring fenced, which would give Plymouth salvation with connections to the wider world. The loss of Heathrow, predictably, hurt the city. Newcastle and Belfast need this protection too, and likewise Leeds, Inverness and Newquay, cities whose air links are via Gatwick.
Where does Eastern/Air Southwest go from here? Using Newquay Airport, an hour’s drive across the border into Cornwall, is not a serious consideration for the business traveller. At 45 minutes (on a good day), Exeter is nearer but offers no London link and is essentially dedicated to leisure traffic.
Devon County Council and Plymouth City Council need to do some serious thinking about where Plymouth is positioned in the 21st century. The massive harbour has missed out completely on the cruising boom. Just 13 ships would have visited this year. Guernsey, which does not have a harbour (ships moor in "The Roads" with a tender transfer to St Peter Port)) will have hosted 60. And as lovely as the Channel Islands are, Plymouth and its hinterland has a lot more to offer. Southampton Airport has boomed with the cruise ship business. So could Plymouth.
Plymouth City Council should make it clear to Sutton Harbour Plc that what remains of the airport cannot be turned into a housing estate or industrial complex and needs new management with imagination and vision. If the worst came to the worst it should become the Air Southwest/Brymon Memorial Park.
Let is hope it does not come to that. We wish Eastern Airways well in its latest endeavour.
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