The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has started the bidding process that will lead to a new five-year Royal Navy helicopter support contract.
The contract for the provision of helicopter services for Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) has been expanded to include support for the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers and for Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) – the latter will include for the first time a Search and Rescue (SAR) service.
FOST helicopter support was previously based at Plymouth Airport for sixteen years.
The new five-year contract will be awarded later in 2023 for start by March 2024 and could potentially be extended for up to 10 years. It replaces that held by British International Helicopters (BIH), at Plymouth. BIH was forced to relocate the FOST operation to Newquay in 2011 when Plymouth Airport closed.
Day-to-day operational activity remains centred around the Plymouth area however, as the FOST teams are based at Devonport. This requires frequent transits to and from Newquay into the city. These transits not only increase fuel and maintenance costs for the RN customer and the operator, they can also limit the time that helicopters are available for flights between Devonport and naval vessels at sea.
The optimal base for this helicopter support contract therefore is Plymouth and Plymouth Airport is now being looked at by potential bidders.
FlyPlymouth has been in contact with a number of the potential operators and has been approached by others that are putting their proposals together.
FlyPlymouth’s David Simpson – formerly Chief Operating Officer at BIH – knows only too well how important the regular deployment of FOST teams from Plymouth direct to the ships under training and assessment is.
He said: “The FOST activity is critical in ensuring the Royal Navy’s ships are fully combat capable and safe to operate, in addition to the many NATO and foreign warships that also request their services for such activity off Plymouth.”
“Operating the Fleet Helicopter Support Unit for FOST is critical to its efficiency and flexibility. Given the nature of the activity, the loss of the Plymouth Airport base was an unnecessary degradation of the service from many perspectives.”
“This is a prestigious contract which is now expanding to provide key logistic support to the Navy’s magnificent new aircraft carriers, as well as maritime counter-terrorism support – especially search and rescue standby.”
As to the contract’s future basing at Plymouth, Simpson said: “It is critical now that bidders have confidence that the airfield will be available to them by mid 2023 at the very latest if they are to include the City airport base in their final proposals. Its time for Plymouth City Council to stop procrastinating and get the airport re-opened this year.”
Did you know… the number of passenger flights at Plymouth Airport almost doubled between 2003 and 2009? According to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) there were well over 8000 scheduled commercial flights to and from Plymouth that year – or 22 flights a day.
Not bad at all for a modestly-sized city airport.
Better in fact than many UK airports serving larger populations such as Brighton-Shoreham, Carlisle, Coventry, Doncaster, Dundee, Durham-Tees Valley, Londonderry, Southend and Swansea. And not so far behind others such as Blackpool, Bournemouth, Humberside and Inverness and Newquay, all of which have longer runways.
But, just twelve months later as the Credit Crunch bit deep into the global economy, air services at Plymouth were withdrawn. Plymothians were told that less than 100 people a day were using the airport – implying low demand.
But it wasn’t that the planes were empty – they had stopped coming in the same volumes.
Plymouth Airport did not close then because of a structural shift in demand; it was more a problem with supply and the emergence of conflicting commercial interests.
What about today? Has the supply side changed favourably compared with 2011? What are the opportunities for Plymouth as the aviation industry recovers following the covid pandemic?
Until now, FlyPlymouth has emphasised reopening Plymouth Airport initially for a variety of private, business, military, training and other kinds of flying collectively known as general aviation (GA). The reason being that when it does open, it will take time to allow new systems, processes and staff to bed in.
This is the safe and certifiable pathway to getting Plymouth ready once again for passenger services. It is also the proper business approach – keep the overheads manageable and in line with demand.
The other reason for not emphasising scheduled services is that no airline is going to commit publicly to serving a closed airport so for now, scheduled activity remains additional rather than central to a robust plan for the airport’s reopening.
Having said that, we are aware that there are potential opportunities for commercial services from Plymouth and airlines with the right equipment to fly some or all of the route network identified.
So, what destinations might we see then, on a future Plymouth Airport route map? Based on specialist advice and industry outreach the picture could look something like the following:
This includes 3-4 destinations providing a range of connecting services and 3-5 holiday charter opportunities for specialist summer or winter holiday markets.
That is not far off what Plymouth Airport was handling in the years before air services were withdrawn and represents a massive potential improvement in connectivity for Plymouth and the sub-region which other forms of transport simply cannot provide at the same speed and price.
But there is more. We have the prospect of new 10-40 seat electric aircraft becoming available over the coming decade. These will open up a range of formerly uneconomic routes across the UK to be followed in time with EVTOL aircraft. Last November, Central Government recognised the importance of regional air connectivity in the Union Connectivity Review. The Transport Select Committee also addressed the importance of regional air connectivity in a report published this week.
Taken together then, the present opportunity for Plymouth, West Devon, South Hams and east Cornwall to benefit from Plymouth Airport has never been stronger. But we need the political leadership to make it a reality.
Today’s opportunities are many and real. It is time for a clear route map leading to the airport’s re-opening and for Plymouth to come together and get it done.
One final point, CAA data consistently shows that most of the aircraft movements at Plymouth in the years leading up to the airport’s closure were not scheduled services but general aviation. The report used to close the airport in 2011 also made clear that Plymouth could have been retained profitably as a general aviation facility. So even with the withdrawal of passenger services Plymouth Airport should never have closed.
If you have been following the recent emails and posts, you may be wondering what happens next. What is going to become of Plymouth Airport?
We are no fortune tellers, but it is possible to form a reasonable picture of what is being lined up. And as much of this is in the public domain and in the public interest, here goes:
Plymouth Airport is in a parlous state and the subject of a wrangle between the leaseholder and Plymouth City Council which owns the freehold. Both would like to develop it as there are tens of millions to be made.
But why would the City Council allow the leaseholder to do so when they regard them as the minority stakeholder? The first item of business must be to remove the leaseholder. This may explain the big-ticket articles in the press about how much the lease is worth.
The Council has two main options to remove the leaseholder. First is Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO), the second is legal action for breach of the Airport Lease. CPO sounds the obvious candidate. But to succeed, this would have to be on the basis of aviation - the Planning Use.
That means the Council would require an aviation partner. And they would be obliged to reopen the airport – not get to develop it. They cannot CPO on their own so they will dismiss this option.
But they can litigate on their own.
At some point Council’s legal advisors will be trawling through the lease looking for arguments to bring the lease to an early end. That process may or may not lead to court action depending on how confident the leaseholder feels about defending the case.
If there is too much uncertainty, expect an out-of-court settlement and an announcement that Plymouth City Council has finally stepped up and acquired Plymouth Airport.
But don’t celebrate too hard. Council Tax-payers will be paying for the Council’s losing control of Plymouth Airport when they accepted closure on that poorly-drafted lease.
And this will still be far from over.
The Council's officers will next present options to Cabinet for a decision. At the risk of second guessing, the options may look something like this:
Work on options something like those outlined above will have been ongoing over the past couple of years. That is what officers do. But it was officers that lost control of the airport under the present lease and officers that will be bailed out by Council Tax-payers when the airport is recovered.
Councillors on the other hand are elected to make the decisions and direct the officers on your behalf. So it is worth speaking with or writing to your Councillor to let them know your views.
In the next article, something more positive: FlyPlymouth’s vision for Plymouth Airport
Local planning policy (2019) safeguards Plymouth Airport for five years to allow for its return to aviation. However, Plymouth City Council – who’s policy this is – has raised insurmountable hurdles for would-be operators, threatening to kill off any real prospect of its reopening.
How has it done this?
First by accepting the airport’s closure on the provisions of that poorly-drafted lease. Would-be operators are first obliged to remove the present leaseholder. That leaseholder is asking an amount of money that would sink a new business.
The Council has done and is doing nothing about this.
But new operator would also have the cost of putting the airport right. Dilapidations since closure were estimated at up to £5 million five years ago. These might have been prevented under the lease and the site maintained.
The Council has done and is doing nothing about this.
The Council accepted that it had a PRO-ACTIVE role to play to resolve the leasehold when the policy was adopted. For the next two and a half years, it did nothing. That is half the safeguarding period gone.
Nick Kelly, to his credit took the issue up on becoming Leader of the Council. But since his departure last month, who knows where this goes?
The argument seems to be being spun that no business has shown interest in operating Plymouth Airport since its closure in 2011.
Odd that, because in 2017 FlyPlymouth provided a 35-page summary of its business plan as part of the evidence that helped the Council secure its policy. In 2020, FlyPlymouth submitted a detailed 150-page version of the updated business plan. This incorporated an economic impact assessment and eight letters of interest including one from Babcock.
Since the Local Plan was adopted in 2019, FlyPlymouth has met with the Council leaders and their officers on at least 11 occasions, suggested numerous options and revisions on ways of making this a reality. We have introduced them to team, our partners and financial backers including private equity and venture capital firms. We have taken part in the Council’s market testing exercise (2020) and offered to buy the site from them at a fair commercial price. We have asked them to stand behind an offer to buy the leaseholder out.
Nothing. Has. Happened.
We ARE very much interested! But are they?
Last October, Plymouth Herald ran an article covering Sutton Harbour Group’s 2021 annual report (see link below).
This article reported SHG’s thinking that Plymouth Airport could be worth ‘more than double the carrying value.’ Their carrying value is reported as £12.96 million indicating that the group expects to make at least £26 million from selling the site.
What do other people think?
FlyPlymouth has received advice from a leading aviation specialist who said that in its present state without support from government to help fund the site’s reinstatement the airport is worth no more than £1 million under aviation use. If capital support were available, the airport could be worth between £5 million and £10 million.
In 2017, Blackpool Council bought its local airport from Balfour Beatty for £4.25 million. Blackpool Airport is substantially larger than Plymouth Airport and in operational condition.
What does the Airport Lease say?
Under Schedule 7 of the Plymouth Airport Lease, SHG stands to receive 25% of the proceeds from the sale of land after costs and other liabilities based. Today best value is based on aviation use. But assuming a change of use were secured by overturning the Joint Local Plan, what would 25% of residential development value be worth?
The airport site is 113 acres. Assuming £500,000 per acre for residential use (ignoring costs for open spaces, infrastructure and Section 106 obligations) the site would be worth £56.5 million. 25% of this number is £14.1 million but residential use has not been granted and the site is safeguarded for aviation use.
£14.1 million is still well below the £26 million or more that SHG has said it wants for the Airport. So where will that extra money come from?
Well, if as we have previously reported, Plymouth City Council has lost control of the Airport Lease it is possible that the additional value SHG is indicating to its shareholders it hopes to realise will effectively come from the public purse. Not only would Plymouth lose its Airport, it would also lose millions more to private shareholders.
What is FlyPlymouth prepared to pay for the Airport?
Very simply, FlyPlymouth is prepared to pay a fair commercial price. Our backers are able to finance acquisition and reopening of Plymouth Airport to create a sustainable and robust operation on the site.
All of the above is in the public domain but sometimes these things need to be spelled out.
For now, Plymouth Airport is a public asset belonging to the City and people of Plymouth. If you would like to see it stay that way and back in operation, you may wish to write to your local Councillor and ask them what is going on.
Note: The source documents used for this include:
The Airport Lease is available from the Land Registry.
Has Plymouth City Council lost control of Plymouth Airport? That’s the advice FlyPlymouth received from a leading law firm specialising in airports and planning law. In their words the airport lease situation at Plymouth is a ‘mess.’
The advice says that the ‘Armageddon Clause’ under which the airport was closed, is poorly drafted, unclear and open to interpretation. That uncertainty is made worse by the amount of time that has passed since closure and the Council’s flip flopping over whether it wants the airport shut or reopened.
Having lost control of the process with Plymouth Airport, the Council has potentially lost control of the airport itself. Who knows what a court will make of it!
It looks like someone screwed up. Why did the Council agree to the airport’s closure without first insisting the lease was made fit-for-purpose as part of the agreement on non-viability? Who advised the Cabinet to sign off on these terms? What legal advice did they ask for before so doing and what advice did they receive?
Why this matters hardly needs answering. As well as being unique and vital transport infrastructure, the airport is one of Plymouth’s largest strategic assets. But who controls it? And, if in fact Plymouth City Council has lost control, how do they intend to get it back? Can they afford to do so? And if they can’t afford to get it back, does their screw up mean that Plymouth loses its airport?
We’ll talk more about this over the coming weeks but for now you might want to contact your local councillor and ask them to find out what is going on.
Note, the above is a matter of public interest and firmly within the public domain. The airport lease documents are publicly available from the Land Registry and anyone is free to seek a legal opinion on those documents.