Too few passengers
Flybe’s decision makes it absolutely clear – Manston does not have the makings of a successful passenger airport.
The current owners of Manston airport (Infratil) have always pushed the story that they want Manston to be a mixed passenger and freight airport. We know that Ryanair and easyJet have both examined Manston airport carefully in the past. They both came to the same conclusion: if Manston airport was 10 miles further West, it would have a large enough catchment area to have the potential to succeed as a passenger airport.
However, given that it is not practical to move the airport, the fact remains that 75% of its catchment area lies in the North Sea. This is a simple and inescapably obvious fact that has been overlooked or ignored by Manston’s owners ever since it was privatised.
Too few airlines
Infratil has also always made it clear that the passenger element of the passenger/freight mix would be provided by the low-cost no-frills carriers such as Ryanair, easyJet and Flybe. As far as we know, Ryanair has not seriously considered operating out of Manston. Easyjet would presumably have considered Manston before finally choosing Southend airport this summer as the base for its new routes to Europe.
Flybe has run routes from Manston to Manchester, Edinburgh and Belfast. The Manchester flights were scratched earlier this year, and now Flybe has decided to scratch the Edinburgh and Belfast flights. It is worth noting that all three routes showed realistic promise – they are well-populated, have active business centres, and are tourist attractions in their own right.
Too small a catchment area
In all fairness, the timings and frequencies of the flights as scheduled could have been better, but Flybe presented Manston with a reasonable chance to succeed. Manston failed because 75% of its catchment area lies in the North Sea, and fish don’t have much use for planes. As Flybe’s spokesman put it:
It is fair to say that Manston is one of the airports with the smaller catchment areas in the United Kingdom, and you have Gatwick not too far away.
Just six weeks ago, shortly after Flybe’s second profit warning in five months, Flybe’s chairman Jim French declared an end to the boom in domestic air travel and reported a deepening drop in demand, citing a “very, very flat situation across the industry”.
Both Flybe and the airport have referred to the tough economic conditions that have caused Flybe to review its 200 routes, but the brutally simple fact is that it is only the Manston routes that have been cut.
Nowhere in any of their press releases do Flybe make any reference to night flights having any bearing on their decision. The Edinburgh and Belfast flights are being scratched because there weren’t enough passengers, despite the active marketing in Scotland and Kent, which Flybe has attributed to the challenging economic environment.
It is worth noting, incidentally, that Flybe operate a number of routes out of George Best Belfast City Airport. They fly to Aberdeen, Benbecula, Birmingham, Bristol, Campbeltown, Cardiff, Dundee, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow International, Guernsey, Inverness, Islay, Isle of Man, Jersey, Kirkwall, Leeds Bradford, London Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle, Newquay, Norwich, Southampton, Stornoway, Sumburgh, Tiree, and Wick – and that’s just the UK destinations.
George Best Belfast City Airport has no night flights, as flights are banned between 9:30pm and 6:30am. A ban on night flights does not prevent an airport being successful – but an absence of passengers does. Which brings us neatly to Charles Buchanan’s assertion in the recent Gazette article that:
The decision by Flybe reinforces the need for the airport’s proposals for limited and managed scheduled night-time flights to be agreed with Thanet District Council in order to compete with other national and regional airports.
Flybe’s decision does nothing of the sort. Flybe’s decision is simply further evidence that Manston cannot attract and retain passenger airlines for the simple reason that it cannot provide enough passengers.
Manston’s ambition to be a mixed passenger and freight airport can never be realised. Manston is hoping to attract more freight business by being open throughout the night, and thus becoming the only 24-hour freight airport in the south-east. That’s what the night flights are for – they are not for easy access to cheap sunshine holidays, they are for night freight.