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.

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