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.