Big questions unanswered as passengers are left in limbo

Blackpool International Airport

Blackpool International Airport

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Urgent answers were today demanded from Blackpool Airport bosses after it was announced the terminal could close within two weeks.

Owners Balfour Beatty revealed the Squires Gate 
airport will “likely” shut on October 15 if a buyer cannot be found by October 7.

The Gazette reported, last month, how the company was looking to sell off the operational side of the business.

That was followed by yesterday’s bombshell statement placed on the Blackpool Airport website which read: “We regretfully confirm that if no agreement can be reached before October 7, 2014 which ensures the viability of its operations, then it is likely the airport operations will close. In this event, we expect the last commercial flights will take place on October 15.

“We apologise for the uncertainty this will cause over the coming weeks and we recommend that any affected passengers contact their airline to confirm travel arrangements.”

The Gazette asked a series of questions of Balfour Beatty in relation to why the airport may close during ongoing sales negotiations; what the future holds for staff and the site – and what alternative arrangements have been put in place for anyone booked to travel after October 15.

However, the company said there was no-one available to comment and no further statement would be made.

It is understood, as reported in yesterday’s Gazette, Balfour Beatty is still in talks with a major company about the sale of the airport.

But even if the sale is successful that does not guarantee the passenger terminal – which is losing around £1.5m a year – would survive.

Around 100 people work at the site, although not all jobs would be affected if the passenger terminal closed, with air traffic controllers and ground crew, for example, still needed if an airfield continued on the site.

Staff were, yesterday, called in for lunchtime talks about the future of the airport and were told it may close.

One worker said after the meeting: “It’s looking bleak at the moment. People were informed at the meeting – you can imagine their reaction to the news.

“They (the airport) are not making any money. It will be a miracle if it stays open.”

Another staff member said: “People need to know what’s going on. Is this a plan to get rid of Jet2?

“If the airport closes it will help to suspend the air licenses with the Civil Aviation Authority. If it is suspended Jet2 can’t operate.

“October 7 is not far away– it’s quick, very quick.”

Surprise

International budget carrier Jet2 is the biggest airline to fly out of Blackpool with a number of popular destinations across Europe including Portugal, Spain and Turkey.

But it has had a rocky relationship with the airport and has six years left of its 15-year contract.

In 2012, the High Court ruled the airport must continue serving Jet2’s early morning and evening flights.

The airline went to court after being told by airport bosses, who were desperate to cut costs, it would only accept flights between 7am and 9pm.

Following yesterday’s announcement of a potential closure a Jet2 spokesman said: “The announcement has come as a surprise to us.

“It is our intention to continue operating flights as normal from Blackpool Airport.

“Should the airport make the decision to close, contingency plans will be in place and we will do everything we can to support our loyal Jet2.com and Jet2holidays staff and customers.”

A spokesman for Citywing, which operates flights to the Isle of Man and Belfast from Blackpool, said the airline would “remain positive for future operations to Blackpool”.

However, one leading councillor today said Balfour Beatty had serious questions to answer.

Coun Tony Williams, leader of the opposition Conservative group on Blackpool Council, said the closure threat was a “huge blow to the town.”

He said:“There are many questions to answer both from the airport management group and this current council.

“Just what has happened to the hundreds of thousands of pounds Balfour Beatty took off travellers that was supposed to be invested in a development fund?

“Where did all that money go? Certainly not on the promised improvements and extra destinations and why didn’t this council promote stay and fly packages in a town with hundreds of hotels of all sizes which would have boosted tourism numbers and increased attraction visits by offering ‘Start Your Holiday Here’ incentives?”

Coun John Jones, Blackpool Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “We have been aware that Balfour Beatty has been making significant losses at the airport, however, the speed of the decision comes as a shock and we are naturally disappointed.”

He added: “This is likely the end of an era for the airport as a commercial passenger flight terminal which is a great shame.

“We are very disappointed with how things have gone and we do feel more could have been done by all concerned to stimulate demand and enhance the airport to increase its popularity.

“We do understand, however, it is difficult for any company to sustain a loss making venture and are aware too of the impact the economic crash over the last few years had and the significant effect it has had on the aviation industry.

“We are keen for the site to remain an airfield which brings continuity for some of the existing businesses, retains significant commercial potential and retains Blackpool’s longstanding connection with the aviation industry at Squires Gate which dates back to the war.

“We will work with Balfour Beatty, as well as Fylde and Wyre councils, to maximise the value of the site to the Fylde coast and look at how it can contribute to creating jobs.”

Just a few months ago things appeared to be looking up for the airport as passenger numbers showed a 12 per cent rise year-on-year.

Airport Director Paul Rankin told The Gazette in May: “We are delighted to see the rise in passenger numbers and particularly pleased to see all the routes to our established sunshine destinations doing so well.

“The load factor on the aircraft is around 95 per cent which shows they are well supported by passengers.”

But he added: “The increases have not made a big difference to reducing our losses which come from the cost of facilitating flights with air traffic control and fire fighting facility costs.

“Balfour Beatty has invested close to £30m since they bought the airport and are continuing to do so but obviously they need to see a realisation on their investment.”

Fylde Council leader, Coun David Eaves, said yesterday’s announcement was “bad news for the entire Fylde coast” and “tragic” for airport staff.

He added: “We still hope an alternative operating company will come forward to protect those jobs and to protect the site’s future as an airport.

“It’s important the runway remains open so that, if it (the terminal) does close, it always has the possibility of reopening as a passenger airport. Keeping the runway open will also protect existing businesses at the site.”

Devastating

Hugh Evans, from the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, added: “It’s a devastating blow for Blackpool.

“But airlines will only locate here if there is sufficient demand for their routes.

“Even though the limited number of destinations served by the airport was always a going to give cause for concern Jet2 has showed flying out of Blackpool can be made to work.

“We are aware of the efforts by Balfour Beatty to find a buyer and remain hopeful that one can be found who will invest the time and funds necessary to work with stakeholders and the business community to turn the airport’s fortunes around.”

Susanne Johnson, branch chairman of the Blackpool and Wyre Federation of Small Business, said: “We urge all stakeholders to get round the table as a matter of urgency to get this issue resolved. The airport is a great asset to us and has clear links to supporting our key tourism sector.”

Travel agents believe anyone still abroad after the proposed October 15 closure will be flown to Manchester and bused back to Blackpool.

Anyone unhappy with the alternative arrangements put in place, which are still to be confirmed, can apply to get a refund.

Caroline Foulkes from Poulton travel agents Travelcare World said it was devastating news. She said: “We have had worried customers ringing up already but they will be 100 per cent protected and alternative arrangements will be made.”

Julie Ball, of Bispham, who planned to fly to the Algarve with her partner and two disabled parents on October 9, was kept on the line for more than an hour by Jet2 staff who admitted they themselves were unsure what was going on. She said: “It was total chaos (on the phone).

“Both my parents are disabled and in their 70s. My father is suffering from leukaemia.

“We chose Blackpool Airport was because it is close to home.”

Ian Wharmby, from Blacktax Taxis, which operates the concession at the airport said: “I hope a buyer can be found.

“There is a huge catchment area so it has potential.

“If the airport closes it will hit many businesses.”

Travellers are left saddened by news

Passengers have been left stunned, saddened and shocked after it was revealed Blackpool Airport could shut next month.

As holidaymakers checked in for flights to Ireland and others returned from Spain following the news yesterday, they gave their reaction to the news the airport could close in days.

Garry Kitt, 73, of Knott End, had visited Alicante with partner Janet Carpenter, 55. He believes the airport closure had been on the cards for a few years.

He added: “Last year the airport lost £1.3m. The ground we are standing on belongs to a developer, Balfour Beatty.

“We go to Spain four times a year – now we’ll have to go to Manchester. The great thing has been the convenience for us living local. It is very, very frustrating.”

Allan Ramsay, 66, from South Shore said: “I live across the road and it is so handy for me and my wife to go away. It is a good airport.

“Now I am faced with paying £100 a time to go to Manchester or Liverpool using a taxi. It is so disappointing.”

John Sykes, 61, from Poulton, added: “It is another death knell for the town. We use the airport four or five times a year. We’ve booked a family holiday for Tenerife from here at Christmas – what will we do now?”

Rick Napier, 45, from Cottam Place, Poulton, was travelling to Ibiza. He said: “It is handy. I think it will have a big impact.

“I know hundreds of people who use the airport. I fly four or five times a year from the airport and will not have that chance now.”

Emma Gregory, 29, from Preston, said: “It is the first time I have flown from here and I must say how easy it was. I would have used it again.

“I am sure it will have a knock-on effect for the region.”

Edward McDonald, 54, from Dublin, uses the airport eight times a year. He said news of the potential closure was a “major, major shock.”

Blackpool’s proud place in history of flight

The threat of closure could bring to an end one of the UK’s oldest commercial airports.

Blackpool’s aviation history began more than 100 years ago when Britain’s first major air show was held at Squires Gate in 1909.

The event was attended by 200,000 spectators.

In 1910, the Squires Gate land was leased to a syndicate of businessmen and turned into a horse racing course.

When the First World War broke out the site was turned into a military convalescent home, which eventually closed in 1924.

In 1927, a municipal airport was opened near to Stanley Park, where passengers could fly to The Isle of Man for £1.80.

Rival companies began flying from Squires Gate in 1932, and in 1936 it was decided that Blackpool only needed one main airport, and in 1937, flying ceased from Stanley Park.

The Squires Gate airfield was taken over by the Air Ministry in 1939 and developed for the Royal Air Force.

It was a base for Wellington bombers and Spitfires used to protect Liverpool from German bombers.

When the hostilities had come to an end, Squires Gate was designated a Civil Airport.

The Ministry of Aviation took over the Airport in 1962, and then in 1987, Blackpool Airport was turned into a Private Limited Company with Blackpool Council holding 100 per cent of the shares.

In 1995, a new £2m terminal was opened.

In July 2004, City Hopper Airports Limited took over operation of the airport.

In 2005 Jet2 became the first major low cost airline to base an aircraft at Blackpool, creating 50 new jobs.

The same year Monarch set up a new route to Malaga three times a week.

Two years later a new carrier Jetsteam Express introduced flights to Belfast, Aberdeen and Southampton.

However, by June the company had ceased operating the routes, claiming they had not proved viable.

Weeks later Jet2 cancelled its Prague and Amsterdam services blaming insufficient passenger numbers.

In 2008 Balfour Beatty bought a 95 per cent stake in the airport from CityHopper Airports Ltd for £14m.

Later that year, Jet2 suspended its daily service to Belfast international for the winter due to a dip in passenger numbers and the rising price of aviation fuel.

The service re-started the following March.

At the start of 2009 a £10 Airport Development Fee was introduced. As a result of the fee Ryanair announced its intention to withdraw all flights.

Aer Arann were brought in to continue flights to Dublin. Aer Lingus now operates the route.

In 2012 plans were unveiled to launch a twice-weekly service to Albert-Picardie Airport with Danish Air Transport.

However, the scheme failed to get off the ground and was cancelled before the route was officially opened.

In 2012 Jet2 announced plans to fly to Dalaman, Lanzarote and Ibiza.

In August this year Balfour Beatty announced the airport would go up for sale.

Passenger numbers year by year

2000 - 108,806

2001 - 81,785

2002 - 70,385

2003 - 186,740

2004 - 266,179

2005 - 377,035

2006 - 552,724

2007 - 558,278

2008 - 439,200

2009 - 276,866

2010 - 235,340

2011 - 235,682

2012 - 235,238

2013 - 262,630