Wales and West should join forces on Severnside Airport

Aviation consultant John Borkowski introduces his report advocating a radical solution to a Welsh connectivity deficit

The Welsh Government should go ahead with the purchase of Cardiff Airport but plan long term for a new Severnside Airport to replace Cardiff and Bristol. In our study for the IWA Air Connectivity for Wales and the West, published today, we argue that Wales and the West of England should cooperate to promote a state of the art, 24-hour Severnside passenger and cargo airport that would serve the whole of south West Britain.

The IWA will be submitting our report to the UK Government’s Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, which is looking at the issue of airport capacity in London. However, it has also been asked “to take account of the national, regional and local implications of any proposals.”

To do this it certainly should take account of the needs of southern Wales and the West England. Our report says there is a danger that decisions on airport provision in London could mean a serious worsening of their air connectivity. This would be particularly severe if it is decided to opt for airport development on the east side of London. Unless a new level of air service provision can be created for south Wales and the West, it will entail a significant loss of economic competitiveness for both regions.

A decade ago we made a study of the concept of a Severnside airport for Newport Council. We believes there is still an opportunity to build this on the edge of the estuary between Newport and Chepstow, with convenient access to the motorway system and to the new electrified rail service. It would take nearly 10 years to plan and build, but the eventual and coordinated closure of Cardiff and Bristol Airports would mean that it would have 10-11 million passengers a year from the start.

Its siting would minimise noise pollution, with planes able to take off and land over water. This would also allow it to become the UK’s first purpose-built, 24-hour cargo airport, reversing the relative decline of air cargo in the UK. It could become an integrated cargo hub linking all four modes of transport – air, road, rail and marine.

Such an airport would provide Wales and the West of England with a better service than anything that could be developed separately at Bristol and Cardiff.

The present Cardiff and Bristol airports face limited growth prospects due to location and site limitations that cannot be easily overcome. Neither Cardiff nor Bristol airports are conveniently situated for road or rail access. It will not be easy to revive Cardiff Airport’s fortunes, while the development of Bristol Airport is constrained by runway limitations and other factors in the medium term.

We support the Welsh Government’s plans to buy Cardiff Airport, although that reversing its decline will be a formidable challenge. It is right for the Welsh Government to wish to take greater control over the future short-term direction of the airport, even if Cardiff Airport does not offer the optimal solution in the long term. Such ownership will facilitate long term planning.

There is much to be said for the public-private partnership structured approach adopted by major European airports such as Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Here the state directly or indirectly has a major, constant equity stake, thus stabilising the capital structure of its airports and making it cheaper to raise debt finance for expansion.

There is no single existing airport site that can conveniently meet the medium and long term development needs of Wales or south west England. Wales has too small a population to base its long-term aviation needs on solo development. Wales and the South West of England need to work together closely to develop a joint approach towards aviation that will result in a major new airport facility for the whole of South West Britain.

We believe our recommendations deserve to be taken seriously by Governments in London and Cardiff and by the business communities of Wales and the West of England. The Welsh Government had done absolutely the right thing in seeking to gain greater control over the future of our air connectivity. This takes the thinking a stage further. If the Welsh economy is to prosper this is the kind of big scale, long-term thinking that it needs.

John Borkowski is a former Head of Strategy for British Airways and is now Managing Director of MSP Solutions, an aviation and management consultancy formed in 2003, with extensive aviation, airline, and airport experience in both consulting and management. He is co-author of the report with MSP Solutions Chairman Angus Walker. Today they will be making a presentation on the project at the IWA’s National Economy Conference – Making Wales Competitive - at the Parc Hotel, Cardiff.

14 thoughts on “Wales and West should join forces on Severnside Airport

  1. It’s clear that there will be major new airport facilities in south east of England in whatever guise, however the future for Cardiff airport is not good, so Bristol here we come! The problem for Cardiff is the shortage of population as a large segment of Wales would never fly from there, instead opting for Birmingham/Liverpool/Manchester as they best serve their needs. The major problem is that we have been betrayed by the Welsh political classes, and BBC Wales/S4C that solutions to our problems lie within our own hands. I’ve just returned from London and amazed as to the vibrancy of the place, whilst we seem to be drifting off into a limbo land of the near dead. To say the answer is to pass it to Welsh Government, who, let’s be frank, couldn’t organize a …. up in a brewery!

  2. “Wales has too small a population to base its long-term aviation needs on solo development.”

    Nonsense. There are plenty of nations which are smaller than Wales who run successful airports.

  3. Oh my word. What a disastrous idea.
    Some very interesting points are made which would be fine if we were living in some sort of fantasy world where our actions didn’t matter, where we don’t need to bother about taking action to mitigate against a changing climate or where we didn’t need to concern ourselves about the loss of biodiversity and essential ecosystems and habitats.
    We have to drive down carbon emissions. That doesn’t mean building new super-airports, but making the best of what we already have and driving emissions down there too.
    We have to protect what biodiversity we have left before our environment fractures entirely and we lose billions of pounds trying to make up for the ecosystems services we used to get for free. That doesn’t mean trashing an extensive internationally important wildlife site like the Severn Estuary, that supports billions of creatures, humans included.
    Get real. The economy is entirely dependent on a healthy, thriving environment. Where would we get our food, clean air, clean water, timber, clothes and medicines from? Where would the economy be without those services?
    We need to start some big-picture thinking and this article doesn’t do much towards thinking beyond money.
    Sincerely disappointed,

  4. I had a skim at the report which makes interesting reading. With the projected growth figures for aviation provided by the Dept for Transport in the report, I am reminded of an article by Professor Phil Goodwin. The article relates to how there is at present a reluctance within the Dept for Transport to factor in the effects of transport schemes based around behavioural change into their modelling methodology. Behavioural change, or sometimes called soft engineering, covers things like personalised travel planning, improved provision for walking and cycling etc., smarter travel behaviour etc. as opposed to capital projects. The contention with not giving as much recognition to the behavioural change type projects is that it dismisses the benefits that schemes like this give. For instance, a road scheme will usually give a cost / benefit ratio of between 2 and 5, whereas a smarter travel scheme will have a vastly higher cost benefit. But the article also makes mention of the dispute relating to accuracy of projected figures from the DfT for road based transport (DfT figures project rising traffic levels, whereas actual traffic is falling),

    Whether the concept of smarter travel can extend to aviation given the step change in distance, speed and travel times involved with this transport mode I’m not sure, as this is not my particular field of transportation. From what I can make out in Chapter 6 of the report, the projected aviation figures from the DfT don’t factor in the effects of alternative modes for short haul flights? Also, in the long term there looks to be a significant discrepancy between low and high growth projections, with levels being predicted to rise between 50% and 100 % in the long term.

    An airport in the estuary is a massive capital undertaking; before recommendation based on projected aviation figures, is it the case that we look into making best use of existing transport resources? This means not just making best use of the aviation capability available (i.e. Bristol / Cardiff), but across all our travel modes.

  5. I’m not convinced that Wales has a connectivity problem. It seems to be more of a credibility problem as the Welsh Government systematically alienates Wales from the mainstream with a series of backward looking policies the Luddites would have been proud of. In short there is little obvious incentive left for business-grade travel to international centres as Helvetica found – so they dropped the dead donkey:

    So what is an airport in (South) Wales for? Another loss-making vanity project for the political class so they can fly off on their jollies looks to be the only obvious remaining answer…

  6. This scheme could be developed in conjunction with one of the Middle East sovereign wealth funds – it is exactly the sort of development they fund – look at Thames Gateway container port – and would bring in one of the big Middle East carriers which could become their Atlantic bridge. Carwyn should ignore the UK gov and get on a plane to Abu Dhabi or Doha.

  7. I’ve been having an argument on LinkedIn about the Severn tolls and it has moved on to the new airport…
    Cardiff airport will continue to go down hill even if the coucil buy it. It’s location is ridiculous and airlines are pulling out – does this not send the message that Cardiff airpot is no good?

    The council should buy the airport and sell it to property developers to build more houses. The trouble is there’s not enough forward thinking here by the Welsh Government and as usual too chicken to take chances, that’s why we are behind the rest of the UK.

  8. Dave is living in a world of his own. No country with an economy the size of Wales’s operates an international airport of significance without huge subsidy – and especially not if there are airports 20 miles away across an international border. If we want to be independent we have to be intelligent and work out how to make a living in the world as it is not waste scarce money on fantasies. If we were as rich as the Swiss there might be enough business traffic to sustain an airport – but subsidising an airport won’t make us as rich as the Swiss. Cause and effect Dave, don’t mix ’em up.

  9. What a bonkers idea – please keep your thoughts to yourself. Both airports have been around for decades. One started off in the 1950s as Rhoose Airport and the other Lulsgate Airport, people on both sides of the border know where these are located. Even people in Somerset and Devon know Rhoose Airport! It would be cheaper by far to upgrade both facilities to their maximum and both work together, rather than waste money building a new airport – Wales and the west will never rival the London airports – live in the real world.

  10. Worrying.

    What would be the impact on Wales’ (already high) greenhouse gas emissions?

    What would be the damage to wildlife and habitats?

    Wales needs a thriving green economy to create jobs. Somehow I doubt this plan fits with a sustainable future.

  11. David, it’s not nonsense, there are not many nations of three million, and given Liverpool and Manchester are preferred departure points for North Walians, any Cardiff airport is restricted to South Walians, who have nearby Bristol (a small city by international standards but still substantially larger than Cardiff) for short stop and Heathrow for long haul, soon directly linked by electrified rail. The sort of nations of under three million who fair better are extremely isolated or island nations with few other options in and out. Wales and particularly South Wales, isn’t in this position.

  12. Unfortunately the debate around a “Severnside” airport distracts us from the immediate question which is, what about the one we’ve already got? Alot of people are exaggerating the troubles of Cardiff Airport. It has gone downhill in recent years but it’s not really that long ago when it was at record capacity with 2m passenger movements. Under private ownership we’d probably be looking at a scaling down of operations and eventual closure. If Wales starts to lose more and more facilities it really gets difficult to justify that we need any kind of Welsh economic policy or infrastructure. It also gets alot harder to market Wales abroad and secure more jobs here, which as an export-aligned economy is one of our key needs (and actually includes any seeking out of foreign investment in the green sector – people from Vattenfall and EDF etc fly here or to England). Aviation is the most convenient form of international travel. If you reduce it you cut yourself off. Emissions savings can be made much more easily in surface transport and have to be sought there at all costs. The debate around the airport’s future shouldn’t be so defeatist though. It doesn’t need that many passenger movements to be viable. It doesn’t need to rival or overtake Bristol. It isn’t in the “wrong” place although it’s not ideal. The airport, under private management and public ownership, can attain a credible slice of the UK aviation market and ensure that we have a specific Wales-branded facility within that market. Climate change reduction efforts must continue in the realm of public transport and energy generation. But we’re going to need one international airport, which is appropriate for a country the size of Wales. People in the north will continue to use north-west England airports exclusively, as is the most appropriate solution at this time.

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