Are we seeing the slow death of Britain’s regional airports?
Back in 2018, Telegraph Travel proclaimed a renaissance for Britain’s regional airports, highlighting rising passenger numbers at many of our smaller hubs and the arrival of some bold new routes, such as Manchester to Seattle, Birmingham to New York, Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi, Glasgow to Vancouver, Leeds-Bradford to Seville and Liverpool to Pula.
Five years on, the picture could hardly be more different. Each of those six exciting routes – plus many more – have fallen by the wayside. One airport – Doncaster-Sheffield – has closed entirely. Another – Southend – is on life support. Passenger numbers, which plummeted during the pandemic, are still stuck in the doldrums, and the collapse of Flybe last week will only make matters worse.
It’s a bad time to be a British traveller living a long way from London.
Which airports are suffering the most?
The demise of Doncaster-Sheffield in November came despite the airport experiencing its busiest ever year in 2019, when it welcomed 1.4m passengers on 4,615 departures, to destinations as diverse as Gdansk, Vilnius, Malaga, Amsterdam and Tenerife. That fell to 1,651 departures in 2021, before recovering slightly to 2,724 in 2022. It wasn’t enough, however. South Yorkshire’s mayor, Oliver Coppard, said the closure would have a “devastating” impact on people living in the area.
A few years ago it seemed the only way was up for London Southend, with easyJet and Ryanair helping it serve over 2m passengers in 2019 on 9,467 departures. Routes included Prague, Barcelona, Bergamo, Bilbao and Alicante. Head there today and you’ll find its doors firmly locked. Ryanair left in 2021, and EasyJet has scrapped its winter services, meaning nobody is scheduled to fly from the airport until April, and only 377 departures are planned for the whole of 2023.
Southampton is another airport facing an uncertain future. It welcomed a record 2.1m passengers on 19,988 departures in 2017. Last year those figures were just 263,131 and 8,144, respectively. It was hit hard by the collapse of the last iteration of Flybe in March 2020; the new version – prior to its collapse last week – was planning to return in February. Hope lies in the construction of a runway extension, which will allow larger aircraft to visit. It lost £4.5m last year; airport director Steve Szalay has said at least 1.2m annual passengers are needed to break even.
Then there’s Exeter, another Flybe hub until the airline’s initial 2020 collapse. It saw 6,985 departures in 2019, but only 2,191 are scheduled for 2023 (down 68.6 per cent). It lost almost £1.5m in the year to March 2022, having required £5m of taxpayer cash to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Though the likes of Ryanair, Jet2.com and EasyJet will mop up some of the spare capacity, the collapse of Flybe 2.0 will also have a profound effect, with Birmingham and Belfast City, its two bases, facing the biggest impact. East Midlands, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Newquay were the other non-London airports to which it flew.
Aberdeen too will be counting the cost – Flybe had planned to launch flights there in the summer and it has already seen scheduled departures fall from 24,428 in 2017 to 14,977 in 2023 (down 38.7 per cent).
Glasgow, where they have dipped from 44,147 to 30,741 (down 30.4 per cent), and Cardiff, where they’ve dropped from 8,309 to 3,283 (down 60.5 per cent), have also been hit hard.
It’s all a far cry from the situation at the four big airports in the capital. Heathrow has 233,533 departures scheduled for 2023, just a shade below the 2019 figure of 239,017. Stansted has 79,369, only 7.6 per cent down. Gatwick and Luton are further behind, but not by much.
That said, it’s not all doom and gloom for the regions. A few airports beyond the capital are finding it easier to reach their pre-pandemic numbers. Bristol, for example, expects to see 31,323 flights taking off in 2023 – up on the figure of 30,646 from 2019. Belfast International, Leeds Bradford and Newcastle are only slightly down on their pre-Covid heights. Overall, however, the picture is gloomy for most smaller airports.
What went wrong?
It has been a grim few years for the entire aviation industry. The Covid pandemic made many people reluctant to travel, two years of ever-changing rules hindered those who did want to get away, while financial support from the Government has often been labelled insufficient. Now, just as holidays are returning to normal, rising energy costs are forcing both businesses and millions of Britons to tighten their belts.
But it is clear that the country’s smaller airports are suffering more than their larger counterparts and for some the decline actually predates the pandemic.
“Regional airports should, in theory, have every chance of success – and not just for domestic connections, but for holiday flights to Europe,” said Nick Trend, Telegraph Travel’s Chief Consumer Editor. “They offer convenience, cheaper parking and a lower chance of delays. But they seem to be much less resilient to economic shocks than their giant rivals and the financial crash of 2008-2009 – which hit people’s holiday budgets hard – the pandemic, and the ongoing cost of living crisis have served up a succession of blows.”
Gilbert Ott, travel expert and author of the blog God Save the Points, believes it is largely a matter of money. “Data suggests that the vast majority of travellers prioritise cash over convenience, and fares from regional airports are rarely as low as those from a big city like London,” he said. “It is often cheaper for people who live near regional airports to drive or take the train to a major hub, so this is what they do.”
There’s also been a wider fall in the number of Britons taking domestic flights, perhaps due to cutbacks in business travel spending, perhaps due to environmental concerns. Back in 2007, just before the financial crash, 454,666 domestic departures left UK airports. That slumped to 295,586 by 2019 and is still – at 207,500 for 2023, 15,000 of which belong to Flybe – way down on that pre-pandemic figure.
Can tax cuts make a difference?
Against this backdrop of decline, one story last week stood out. Ryanair announced plans to fly this summer from its main UK base at Stansted to Newquay Airport – a journey of under 250 miles – as well as Belfast and Edinburgh. Explaining the move, it cited the Government’s decision to halve Air Passenger Duty (APD) on domestic flights (from £13 per person to £6.50), effective from April. For every full Ryanair flight, the tax cut translates to a not insignificant saving of £1,228.50.
Could more airlines follow suit, jolting some of Britain’s slumping regional airports back to life? Hopes are certainly high, with Anne Doyere, aviation director at London City, the East End airport also struggling to return to pre-pandemic passenger numbers, pushing for more routes to the Channel Islands.
But more assistance is needed, according to the UK Airport Operators Association. A spokesperson said: “Britain’s airports lost over £10bn of revenue during the pandemic [and] we are disappointed by the lack of action and support from the Government to assist the recovery of regional aviation.”
Gilbert Ott believes financial incentives could be the only way to arrest the decline. “If you look at America’s regional airports, for example, they’ve often been subsidised in some way to remain open,” he said. “The only exceptions have come thanks to the rise of regional US airlines like Avelo and Breeze, which have cracked the code by offering both convenience and good fares. But that requires serious venture capital and runway.”
Given the economic outlook, the emergence of a new carrier to succeed where Flybe – and before it British Midland, which went bankrupt in 2012 –- failed, looks extremely unlikely. In which case the only hope lies with the likes of Ryanair putting their weight behind the regions. But with the Irish low-cost behemoth currently raking in record profits of £2m a day with its simple but effective Stansted-to-the-Med business model, that could be wishful thinking. Travellers reliant on smaller airports may need to get used to fewer flight options and higher fares – or long journeys to London.