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UK aviation: South Wales to have scheduled services again at its second airport, Swansea

Analysis

When Swansea Airport, in South Wales, last hosted scheduled services many airports in the UK were operated by surface transport operators (e.g. buses) or real estate companies. Indeed, nearby Cardiff, the Welsh capital, was home to the realtor TBI, a then-major operator which was later absorbed by Spain’s Abertis.

Even Cardiff Airport has had its problems at times, and Swansea’s route network was always limited – it closed to commercial flights in 2004. But unlike other UK airports that have succumbed to economic reality (Ipswich, Plymouth, Manston, Sheffield City and recently Doncaster-Sheffield, for example), Swansea looks set to host scheduled service again from Mar-2023.

It is starting small, with just one route, and will assuredly remain small. There is local opposition even to this tiny increase in activity, the infrastructure is basic, and the management could change in the future.

But just getting going again (as with Manston) is a feather in its cap.

Summary

  • Swansea Airport to resume a scheduled air service in Mar-2023; more could follow.
  • The new route, the first for almost 20 years, is to Exeter in southwest England.
  • If there are to be other routes, duplicating those at Cardiff Airport would not be wise, and there are unserved opportunities.
  • New infrastructure is anticipated, and needed.
  • Local opposition – even to limited expansion – is strong.
  • A change of management is possible, but unlikely.  

Swansea Airport to resume a scheduled air route, 19 years after the last one 

Swansea Airport in South Wales, UK, recently confirmed that it has plans to resume handling scheduled services at the end of Mar-2023.

'Air Wales' was the last commercial airline to operate at Swansea and it ceased operations at the airport in 2004.

That airline went out of business in 2006 and also operated out of another airport that closed to commercial services – Plymouth, in Devon, England.

Since then, Swansea has been predominantly a general aviation facility.

Air Wales operated to several UK and European cities

From Swansea, Air Wales had operated to London City airport in the British capital, and also to Dublin and Cork in Ireland (there is a ‘Gaelic connection’ between Ireland, southwest England and South Wales), as well as to Jersey in the Channel Islands and Amsterdam. It even connected to the Welsh capital, Cardiff, just 35 miles (56km) away.

Those airports will probably be the ones that come under scrutiny first by whichever airlines consider operating from Swansea in the future, as there is at least a route history to build on, even if it was two decades ago.

Connecting hubs might be more of a target this time

But times change, and operators will probably wish to maximise opportunities for developing connecting traffic at hubs, either on an interline, or self-connecting, basis.

Two of the airports Air Wales was servicing were, and are, hubs (Amsterdam and Dublin), but there were none in the UK.

The first service is a short hop across the Bristol Channel to Exeter

Initially though, Swansea will host a service to Exeter in South Devon, across the Bristol Channel and only 120km distant directly.

However, an indirect routing by road, or rail via Bristol, is a journey of 242 km (145 miles) taking three hours, even if the road journey is by motorway for most of it.

Location of Swansea Airport, UK

There has been no announcement concerning which airline will operate the route (as of Friday 20-Jan-2023), and even the local newspaper has been unable to contact the management for comment.

A wide range of airlines could operate there, but there are runway limitations

It might possibly be Channel Islands-based Air Alderney, which already offers charter and freight services into and out of Swansea Airport.

The airlines currently operating out of Exeter are TUI, Aer Lingus, Ryanair, Blue Islands, Loganair and Air Aurigny.

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which any of the first three would wish to operate a flight to Swansea, even if they could operate off the short runways there.

Jersey, Channel Islands-based Blue Islands is a possibility. It already operated services to four other UK airports apart from Exeter, including Bristol.

Loganair, now Britain’s largest regional airline, is another possibility.

Loganair has a comprehensive network of 30 airports around the British Isles but already operates to Cardiff and Exeter, which it could consolidate into a connecting service.

Air Aurigny (Aurigny Air Services), which has services to six UK mainland airports, including Bristol but not Cardiff, is another possibility, as is the recently resurrected Flybe, which is starting to spread its wings after a slow start; or a yet-unannounced start-up airline. Only outside bets would be on another start-up airline.

But none of these airlines apart from Loganair could subsequently offer the connections to the major hub airports that are attractive to both domestic point-to-point travellers and international ones.

Loganair could potentially offer three London airports (Heathrow, City and Stansted) as well as Manchester for connections, and a host of major cities (Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow etc.).

Using Exeter as a connection point would offer some benefits to residents of Swansea and its environs, with potential onward services to southern Spain and the Canary Islands, as well as the Channel Islands.

Leisure travel between Swansea and Exeter would be two-way

But that is the measure of what such a service could offer in the immediate future beyond leisure and VFR-related travel between the two city-regions (the Gower Peninsula where Swansea is located is a highly regarded tourism region, so leisure travel would not be one-way directional) within a framework of a grand air taxi service.

There would likely be some business travel too.

Routes that are point-to-point only are rarely attractive to airlines though, even to those like Ryanair, if there is only the potential to build traffic at one end of a route. (And in any case Ryanair is well established at Cardiff).

Swansea has similarities to Teesside in northeast England

Swansea’s metropolitan area population verges on 0.5 million, so as is the case in other similarly sized UK city regions, like Teesside in northeast England, there is limited potential to build route networks.

Indeed, Teesside would make for a good model for a Swansea Airport that is starting afresh.

Both airports are situated a similar distance from a major city with a mid-ranking airport (Cardiff/Newcastle respectively).

Both metropolitan areas were once dominated by heavy industry but have had to adapt increasingly to service-based economies, while per capita GDP and other such financial measures are below national averages.

Both would benefit from the UK government’s ‘Levelling Up’ scheme, which claims to help fringe areas compete with the south of England, and indeed Teesside has previously benefitted from EU funding.

Over the last decade or so Teesside has never handled more than 166,000 passengers per annum, and in 2019 the total was 150,000.

Essentially, three airlines keep Teesside going – a low cost carrier (Ryanair, which would be unlikely to fly out of Swansea); a full service one (KLM, owing to historical industrial connections); and a regional one (Loganair).

Realistically, that sort of return is the best that Swansea could aspire to in the short to medium term.

Swansea did manage more than 22,000 passengers in the mid-1970s, and when scheduled services ended in 2004 it had climbed back up from zero in the 1990s to 18,000.

To reach even 100,000 per annum is a huge task.

Passenger traffic at Swansea Airport, 1960 to 2005

Duplicating Cardiff routes should be avoided

The management at Swansea would probably also wish to avoid duplicating routes at Cardiff, owing to its proximity.

Route duplication over short distances does take place across Europe and especially in the UK, for example Manchester-Liverpool-Leeds Bradford (and Doncaster-Sheffield when it was open), where airports are no more than 65 km apart.

But those regions are more heavily populated than South Wales.

Swansea would benefit from identifying gaps in the network at Cardiff, routes that can be operated from short 1200m runways.

Most of those are domestic, and include Manchester, Leeds Bradford, Newcastle and Glasgow – cities where road and rail journeys can be long and tiresome.

There is no London connection from Cardiff, and internationally none to Paris.

In the continuing absence of the Doha service from Cardiff (which was suspended during the COVID pandemic), intercontinental connections from South Wales remain few and far between, the main one being Amsterdam.

The Qatar Airways service had extended Cardiff’s catchment area well into England because Bristol Airport nearby could not offer a comparable service.

Swansea, by comparison, is not really able to do that, and is limited to attracting traffic from South and Mid Wales.

If it re-enters the scheduled service arena to any extent it will always major on ‘niche’ routes.

Cardiff Airport network map for the week commencing 23-Jan-2023

Rail services improving

In many cases the fortunes of UK airports are tied to the capacity and availability of competing rail services, which can be quite good in the southeast of England and on main north-south trunk routes, but is not necessarily so on other regional routes.

Cardiff Airport took a stance during the UK Airport Commission’s reporting period: that it realised that it could not hope to replicate most of the services at London Heathrow and thus supported the expansion at that airport (an additional runway) over the other 50 proposals. Part of the reason was the prospect of improved rail services into London, connecting to Heathrow or running directly to it.

The situation at Swansea, although it is less than 60km further to the west, is a little different.

Access to London by rail takes between 2 hours 45 minutes (direct) and 3 hours 25 minutes, and in the longer term the prospect of any direct flights from the airport into Europe is therefore more attractive.

New infrastructure is anticipated

The Swansea management has stated that the new route is "the first step” in improvement plans, which will also include "further infrastructure”, as well as “services returning to the airport over the year".

The Welsh Assembly Government is conducting studies into improving the facilities at the airport as part of the transport infrastructure development strategy for the whole of Wales.

These improvements may require some public sector support. Development proposals include: a new terminal building, new hangars, upgraded operating facilities, new fencing and a new access road.

Those intentions may have to be revised if more than one new service is launched.

The present facilities can only be described as quite basic.

Local opposition is strong

Furthermore, there has been widespread local opposition to the idea of further development of the airport.

The main concerns are the impact on the internationally important 'Special Area of Conservation', which almost surrounds the airport.

Further: noise from the increased number of flights at the airport (they would be few, but are likely to be turboprop operations); and the negative impact of the development of the airport on the local scenery, since the Gower Peninsula is a designated 'Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'.

Moreover, the undulating and boggy common land beyond the airport perimeter fence to the North East makes extension of the main runway (Runway 04/22) difficult.

There have also been safety concerns. The airport’s operating licence was suspended following a safety audit in Sep-2019.

A management change is possible, but unlikely

The airport is owned by Swansea Council and managed by Swansea Airport Ltd, which has served a notice requesting a new tenancy. The council has to respond by 03-Feb-2023.

Locally it is thought more likely that it will be leased again to the current operator, despite complaints about the way it has been run over the years.

A group called 'Swansea Airport Stakeholders Alliance', representing users of the facility, was set up in 2021 saying it was disillusioned with the airport and that it wanted to run it as a not-for-profit venture for the wider benefit of Swansea. It said investment was “waiting in the wings.”

The alliance has raised concerns over the closure of the airport’s cafe and the airport being open for only five instead of seven days a week. It has urged the council not to renew the lease with the current operator and to make a fresh start instead. Its position is that "Swansea Airport should be a jewel in the crown of Swansea".

Separately, a businessman, Jim Blyth, who leases aircraft at the airport, said he has presented alternative proposals to the council, adding that he felt his commercial plans were more viable than the alliance's not-for-profit approach.

He said he had helped the alliance draw up their proposals, and that he had resigned from it because he wanted a free hand to develop and submit his own.

Mr Blyth also said he was disillusioned with the airport, and that he felt a lease should be given to a new operator.

Twenty years ago a small airport like this with a catchment area running to half a million people would quickly have been snapped up by one of the myriad of arriviste airport operators from the surface transport and real estate sectors.

Those days are long gone, and as far as private ownership is concerned, the best the airport can hope for is a not-for-profit venture operated by users, or the probably restricted plans of a local businessman.

Neither might be an attractive proposition to airlines, which might perceive limited ambition, but then there are no indications that the return of scheduled air services on a single route that hasn’t been flown previously means that the present management has any big ambitions either.

This is all speculation but it does indicate what might at least be possible.

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