Iain Dale: Use it or lose it! Let's try harder to utilise Norwich Airport
PUBLISHED: 20:47 15 August 2019 | UPDATED: 08:26 16 August 2019
Archant Norfolk 2018
Iain Dale says we don't need to look to the London airports when we travel abroad - there's a fine international airport right on our doorstep
I've spent the last two weeks hosting a chat show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and very enjoyable it was too. I've been going to the Fringe for a few years now, and each time I fly up to the Scottish capital from Norwich International Airport. Regional airports like Norwich are often under-appreciated and under-used and struggle to reach their full potential for all sorts of vicarious reasons.
For reasons best known to themselves, passengers will drive miles to travel abroad from the big four airports - Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton - even when there are flights from their own local airport, like Norwich. It's often because they don't even realise there are plenty of international, as well as domestic flights, that take off from those airports each week.
If you live in Ipswich, King's Lynn or Newmarket, have you ever seriously considered flying from Norwich? Thought not. But half a million passengers each year do. That sounds quite a lot, but it accounts for only 0.2% of UK air passengers. Norwich is the 26th busiest UK airport, just behind the likes of Prestwick, Inverness, Bournemouth, Exeter and London Southend.
There are 12 European destinations with daily or weekly direct flights from Norwich, including Malaga, Alicante, Crete, Amsterdam, Majorca and Ibiza. And within the UK you can fly to Manchester, Edinburgh, Exeter, Guernsey and Aberdeen. Yet it is clear that many Norfolk and Suffolk residents will probably automatically look to see if there are flights from Stansted first, without even considering flying from Norwich. Yes, it is true that it might be more expensive, but the convenience is clear. No queues, easy drop off and if you time it right you can be on the plane within 20 minutes of arriving at the airport.
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So why are airports like Norwich struggling to expand and reach their full potential? Three answers: planning, politics and airlines.
Norwich Airport was built on the old RAF Horsham site. Although built up areas weren't far away, most of the houses in nearby Hellesdon and Fiddlewood weren't there in those days. But they are now, and the homeowners in the Cromer Road area fight constant battles against any plans to expand the times that planes are allowed to fly. Local politicians are the first to jump on any anti-nightflight bandwagon. All they can think of are the votes that would be lost if they went along with the airport's wishes. They conveniently forget about the extra jobs that would result from expansion.
However, the biggest threat to the viability of regional airports like Norwich is the profitability of the airlines which operate from them. Countless times over the years, there have been excited press releases issued about new airlines and new routes, only for the excitement to be extremely short-lived. The latest blow came in April when Flybe announced it would cease operations from Norwich, Cardiff, Exeter and Doncaster.
In the long term, the biggest threat to regional airports could come from the national government. Labour is, I understand, seriously considering plans to ban all domestic flights between UK mainland airports. So if I want to travel to Edinburgh from Norwich I'd have to spend upwards of seven hours on a train. This would be a devastating blow to Norwich Airport, and could even lead it to have to close. Repeat this up and down the country and tens of thousands of jobs would inevitably be lost, not just at the airports themselves, but in the local supply chains.
There is one thing that is very unpopular at Norwich Airport, and that is the £10 departure tax that each passenger has to pay, just to go through to the departure gates. This raises upwards of £5 million a year to fund airport infrastructure, but as a PR gaffe, it's up there with the best. Quite why this cannot just be added to ticket prices, Lord only knows. OK, it's only £10 but I can think of no other airport in this country which levies such a tax.
Overall, Norwich Airport is a jewel in the region's crown. We should all be supporting it and travelling from it whenever we can. Because if we don't we run the risk of losing it.
Email Iain at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @iaindale