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Newquay airport, time we had a good chat about it

A few years ago the last Liberal Democrat administration on Cornwall County Council decided to take over what was RAF St Mawgan as a commercial airport. At the time I had mixed feelings about it, obviously as a nationalist I want Cornwall to have assets like airports (and a stadium and a whole host of other things), but on the other hand I was a little concerned about the council running the venture.

The argument for the airport was that it would be a good thing for the Duchy that people coming to and from Cornwall would no longer have to fly to Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol or Cardiff, Birmingham and London. I understand the logic of this, there is a potential for tourists from the rest of this island and overseas to fly direct to here making Cornwall more accessible. The same works in reverse, if Cornish people want to go somewhere why face driving for hundreds of miles before even going near an airport. I am sure I am not the only one to have flown to Ireland and spent a long car journey wondering why we were travelling hundreds of miles to the north east (to Birmingham) to go north. Of course, tourism is just one of the attractions of having a Cornish airport. It could be argued that businesses rely on the service too. Flying in a few hours to Gatwick, Glasgow, Manchester, East Midlands, Dusseldorf, (and from there to other locations) significantly reduces the travelling time, making long distance meetings and returning home possible in a day.

The possibility of Newquay airport is there above, the dream of Cornwall having it's own airport has not translated well into reality. This is for a number of reasons, firstly taking over the facility happened at exactly the wrong time, 2008 to today has been a time of a long recession, people haven't the money for holidays. Secondly it is hard for a small airport to compete with bigger airports, especially ones that serve more routes. Thirdly passenger numbers indicate that Newquay airport is of less and less use to people, 2008 431,100. 2009 359,578. 2010 285,000. 2011 an estimate of 195,000. This has been reflected with airlines no longer operating from Cornwall (Monarch and Ryanair for example). The business case for Newquay airport is non-existent, no one would buy the airport as it has no history of turning a profit. The real headline of the airport is the cost, the taxpayer has to massively subsidise the airport with Cornwall Council and European money. The latter European money also means that the airport can not be sold due to contractual constraints that state that money would have to be returned to Europe.

Effectively we have been saddled with a very expensive airport used by very few but paid for by many. Now is the time that the people of Cornwall thought long and hard about the airport. Is it worth the cost? Is there a sound case that the airport is worthwhile? Does it add anything to the Cornish economy?

A soon to be Algerian Navy Merlin operating from Newquay
The Conservative led Cornwall Council and British Government is intent on supporting the airport but in a very peculiar way. Utilising the non civilian (ex-USAF/ RAF) aspects of the airport they have attracted Agusta Westland there. London announced that the airport would be a Enterprise Zone, bringing attractive subsidies and tax discounts and hoping to increase the non-flight potential of the site. I understand this and respect it, diversification of business seems essential these days. However I don't understand the strategy, if the airport can not make money as an airport what is the point? Also what happens when the Enterprise zones finish? There is every chance that companies there will leave, that is the key flaw to enterprise zones everywhere.

For Newquay Cornwall airport to survive it needs to at least pay for itself and it needs to do so providing flights. Other ventures there are all well and good but can only supplement the income. It is imperative upon Cornwall Council to sort out this mess. I would love to be wrong -for the good of the taxpayer and of Cornwall- but I fear that an organisation that can't make harbour improvements in Penzance has no chance of this much more complicated task. The airport is not a sustainable venture, it soaks up a huge amount of money. Whether Cornwall needs or wants an airport is actually immaterial whilst the airport relies on huge taxpayer subsidies. We have to face the fact that the government's economic plans are not working the deficit is nowhere near being touched and and the punitive taxes and duties on fuel and vat are harming the fragile economy. Further the Eurozone crisis indicates that things may well get much worse before they get better. We need to be thinking ahead, the amount of money available to spend by authorities is bound to continue to reduce, the amount of money people have to spend is also going to reduce. This will have a great effect on the airport. The time to act is now, if we want an airport here in Cornwall we need to find a way to make it profitable....

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