Cardiff airport needs a credible strategy

Rhys David says pipedream destinations and grandiose projects are not the solution to the Welsh gateway’s loss of traffic

False dawns and dark horizons alternate regularly over Cardiff airport so it is probably not worth putting the bunting out yet to celebrate the possible link under investigation with the Chinese region of Chongqing, recently announced by the First Minister Carwyn Jones. The same can be said for the long on-going talks with airlines in the Middle East and India and the proposed Delta Airlines flights to and from New York.

Those with longer memories will remember other much-hailed breakthroughs – among them the Air Wales services to London, the Zoom link to Vancouver in 2005, and most recently the new connection to Zurich. It is ominous that most of these initiatives, including those now being talked about, involve airlines based outside the UK. British-based bmibaby tried for nine years to build up a route network from Cardiff but retired defeated this year despite marketing and other support from the Welsh Government.

The outcome of the Chinese talks will have to be awaited but, on the face of it, it does seem a rather odd connection. There can hardly be enough export-orientated Welsh businesses to fill a plane to China once a month, leave alone more frequently. And are there really that many opportunities in Wales to attract Chinese investors? Perhaps students studying in Welsh universities will fill the seats but how often will they be travelling? Maybe the Chinese tourists who, we are told, will be enjoying the Carmarthenshire countryside in a few years’ time, will disembark at Rhoose, or maybe not.

But it will be argued that Cardiff’s potential catchment area is much wider. Sadly, it is hard to be confident that businesspeople from the Midlands or West of England will travel to Cardiff to fly to the one destination in China that Cardiff will offer when Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam offer a wider range and greater frequency of flights to dozens of cities in Asia.

With the withdrawal of bmibaby Cardiff airport has lost one third of its passengers, yet a credible policy response from airport or politicians never seems to emerge. The airport says it is working hard to find new airline customers, but progress seems to be slow. One-off projects, such as the latest China plans hit the headlines, and in the background others continue to suggest grandiose projects, such as a new airport in the Severn estuary capable of attracting traffic from a wide area of western Britain as well as Wales.

It is hard to see the latter being viable, attractive as it might seem as a concept. Passengers from the West of England, some of whom will have travelled from as far west as Cornwall, would have to be persuaded to add another 40 miles to their journeys if any new Severnside airport was built on the Welsh side. Moreover, for a Severnside scheme to happen Bristol airport’s owners, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and Australian infrastructure group, McQuarie, not to mention Cardiff’s owners, Abertis of Spain, would have to be compensated as the closure of existing airports would almost certainly be necessitated.

It is significant, too, that in the latest discussions on dealing with London’s capacity constraints, no interest at all has been shown in using the west of Britain to provide new facilities. Instead, attention is focusing on a possible site in the Thames estuary which would give London a clock face airport configuration with facilities in the east (Thames estuary), west (Heathrow), north (Stansted) and south (Gatwick) catering for the south east’s demands. However, even if minds change, no new airport would be in place for probably at least another ten years. So a more immediate solution to the Cardiff problem is needed.

Airports in Britain fall into three broad categories. London Heathrow is in a league of its own, offering as wide as possible a range of European and international destinations, using large capacity aircraft. It makes little sense economically for it to offer other than a small number of slots for flights in smaller aircraft to UK cities.

A second tier of airports, such as Manchester and Birmingham, offer flights to a range of European destinations and some international centres, while others such as Bristol, Leeds-Bradford and Liverpool have been able to attract low cost carriers, such as Easyjet and Ryanair, and to develop a range of low cost flights to a broad selection of mainly European destinations. As a result of securing low cost carriers the latter two airports have been able to emerge in recent years from under the long shadow cast by their much bigger regional rival, municipally-owned Manchester.

A third group of airports, in which Cardiff finds itself, have attracted only smaller low-cost providers, plus a range of holiday airlines. As a result they offer a mix of European and sometimes distant holiday resorts, some flights to hubs such as Amsterdam and some internal UK services.

What is needed in Cardiff is a dose of realism and a radical rethink. Encouraging overseas airlines from India, the Middle East and even China to fly to Cardiff will not be cheap, given the financial guarantees these airlines would require and, frankly, such services would be lucky to long out-survive their subsidy period. It would be much more sensible if a way could be found within EU rules to subsidise the two established UK-based budget airlines, Ryanair and Easyjet, to fly from Cardiff and to seek to build up a network of European and UK services. Moreover, with Bristol now very busy with 6 million passengers a year, they might be tempted.

Secondly, instead of trying to establish one-off destinations to China, with which we have virtually no historic, holiday or trade links, why not try to integrate Cardiff much more effectively with the hubs that surround us? We already have very good (but expensive) services to Amsterdam where Welsh passengers can connect with destinations around the world. We could also look to see what hub benefits we might gain from better services to Manchester (180 destinations), Dublin (170 destinations) and Paris (all the main cities of the world). We could also consider prioritising a route to Frankfurt, which if we are interested in China offers the widest range of services to that country of any airport in Europe.

There needs to be a significant exercise in examining the flights and timings from these main airports to ensure passengers from Cardiff can connect easily and without long waits for outward journeys. It should be noted that Dublin has the advantage of being able to offer US immigration controls at the terminal before boarding, under a process called border pre-clearance, thereby avoiding the queues at the other end.

This may or may not be the right strategy and there are no doubt others with a deeper knowledge of aviation who can comment. However, what seems important is that we should have a well thought through and credible Welsh Government strategy for air services in Wales. After all there is general agreement that an airport capable of projecting a positive business image of Wales and of providing an appropriate level of service for an economy the size of south Wales is vital to our prospects.

For the next few years demand for air travel seems likely to be depressed as businesses retrench in the face of difficult market conditions and consumers cut back on holiday spending. However, strategic thinking is needed now to put in place a structure that can deliver when the world economic slowdown ends. Grandiose schemes and pipe dream destinations are literally flights of fancy when other simpler solutions to securing a better range of services for the Welsh travelling public may well be available if properly investigated and co-ordinated.

Rhys David, a trustee of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, writes on business and economic issues.

5 thoughts on “Cardiff airport needs a credible strategy

  1. Depressing to see that the Airport is so ashamed of the Welsh language – or holds it and its speakers in such contempt – that the name of the airport in Welsh in the terminal is in such small letters.

  2. Salmond is in China this week and he has announced that a delegation from China will arrive in Scotland in 2012 to discuss direct flights between Scotland and China. He has even announced the Chinese airline Hainan Airlines which could be involved in any new route.

  3. I’m afraid this article shows a huge misunderstanding of the issue.

    For a start, you can already fly from Cardiff to Dublin and thereafter North America in the way suggested in the article.

    Similarly, Cardiff already links with another major hubs in the shape of Paris Charles de Gaulle via the flybe operation.

    Why would Easyjet and RyanAir compromsie their existing operation in Bristol by competing against themselves in Cardiff? They’d be crazy to do so. Why would the Cardiff economy even want Ryan Air or Easy Jet when all they do is take people out of South Wales on holidays rather than bringing people into South Wales to spend money (the vast majority of passengers on low cost carriers originate in the UK and travel abroad taking their money with them). And why would the airport want them when they don’t pay much in the shape of airport fees or even require airports to pay them?!

    One thing I’d agree on is the lack of credibility regarding a link to China.

    And in any case, WHAT are we looking for from an airport?

    Do we see the focus as being on wealth creation or do we see it as a social issue providing more travelling opportunties for Welsh people?

    The answer to the above leads to very different strategies and actions. I’d suggest the focus needs to be on wealth creation.

  4. Broadly speaking, you are right in what you say. The only way is to steal the customer base back. But additionally it will be necessary to attack the cost base, introduce more efficiency, flexibility etc, so that those pax who do come back are well served. The problem with low cost passengers is that they don’t spend money naturally, and you have to make it on your car parks, food and beverage sales etc. Cardiff is not exactly world class in any of this.
    Apologies for these late comments. I have only just seen your piece.

  5. I have also just seen your piece. I agree that in the short term and the existing financial climate the idea that there will be direct long haul flights to and from Cardiff Airport is a mere flight of fancy. That does not mean that the idea should be discarded when looking at the longer term.

    In the shorter term, as you identify, Cardiff does provide the KLM feeder service via Amsterdam by which people can fly in to and out of Wales to destinations involving long haul flights and in most cases without having to change airlines. This service means that people do not have to concern themselves about the timetable of the terrestial service that will bring them into Wales matching their arrival time at Heathrow, nor about its reliability. Similarly with journeys in the opposite direction. If their journeys in each direction are via the M4, they are saved from the problems that can afflict the route, of which the Brynglas tunnels at Newport are the most frequently cited. This hurdle will be greater in the years it will take to excavate, support and complete the additional passages through that hill if that option is chosen to solve the bottleneck that Newport presents.

    For 9 years my late wife and I used the KLM service to fly between Cardiff and Maseru in Lesotho via Amsterdam and Johannesburg with a change of airlines for the Johannesburg – Maseru leg of the journey. I have also used it since to visit Abu Dahbi, Amman, Bucharest and San Francisco. In each case I am not convinced that the Cardiff- Amsterdam leg was more expensive than the alternative of trecking up to Heathrow after adding in the costs that would have been incurred. Even if it were, it would be a cost worth incurring to avoid what might have been happening on the ground as I flew serenely above the M4 or the main line to or from Reading and Paddington with the onward journey from either. Of course in one way or another these were journeys connected with my work and I also felt that as a Welsh person I owed a duty to support what was called Cardiff International Airport. I feel that all Welsh people living or working within striking distance of Cardiff should emulate what we did when travelling for work or business reasons or who are representing Wales in any capacity. My sense is that they do not, although I have not made a freedom of information request in the case of Welsh MPs, MEPs,Welsh Government Ministers and so on.

    I think that I can fairly say that most of their opposite numbers in Lesotho used Maseru Airport as their departure and return points. They also used it to welcome and to say farewell to visiting dignataries and investors. Certainly as far as the dignitaries were concerned arrangements were made to match their perceived status and I fail to see why the Welsh Government could not make similar arrangements to by-pass the labyrinthine system of corridors to be found at Cardiff Airport. They could be a source of inconvenience even for us, but that paled into significance when compared with the nightmare of getting to and from Heathrow.

    The tourist trade is an altogether different kettle of fish. The trade must be looked at from two different perspectives, namely the trade that takes people out of Wales and that which brings them in. In each case I cannot see the sense of Wales succumbing to the seduction ascribed to the chief of Bristol Airport one of whose points was that Newport lies halfway between Bristol and Cardiff. I have never embarked or disembarked there, but I have had the dubious pleasure of dropping people off and picking them up from Bristol Airport. Each occasion was a hair raising experience whether on the A38 through Bristol, the narrow country lanes connecting the airport from the M5 south and the M5 itself, not to mention the Brynglas tunnels. Apart from those considerations what kind of a country, or what kind of a capital, with any pride would welcome visitors from around the world at an airport in another country. It would be the equivalent of Lesotho welcoming air visitors from Johnnesburg across the border in Bloemfontein rather than at its own airport in the capital Maseru.

    As for outward tourist travel it seems to be the case that Bristol Airport has a greater variety of destinations than Cardiff. But, although more jobs might be created at Cardiff if there were greater choice, it is impossible to see how overseas visits do anything for the Welsh economy. Indeed if the Welsh economy continues to nose dive there might be even less demand for holidays in the sun. A very important contribution to Bristol Airport’s more exotic choice of destinations is the critical mass of population on which it draws from the surrounding towns and counties and this is despite the wholly inadequate approaches to it.

    Picking up on Mr. Sinclair’s point by way of analogy not only is Newport half way between Cardiff and Bristol, but Swindon is roughly half way between London and Cardiff. This being so, if I have understood Mark Barry correctly, would-be air travellers, including the short haul tourist persuasion, might find it more convenient to catch the future electrified London-South Wales line towards the west rather than the east and stay on it through Bristol Parkway. There they might be joined by people from the southwest and the borders, with some of the latter possibly joining it at Newport to be ferried to Cardiff Airport by a rail link. This would provide the critical mass needed to provide a cornocupia of holiday destinations that, in turn, would provide more employment opportunities. Again if I understood Mr. Barry correctly Bristol Airport does not lend itself to such a solution so that the funnelling of even more people in its direction can only increase the current road congestion.

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