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But, just twelve months later as the Credit Crunch bit deep into the global economy, air services at Plymouth were withdrawn.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.