Enormous fanfare in the mainstream media greeting news that a Hungarian budget airline is to base itself at troubled Cardiff Airport (CA), avoids the real story of the huge controversies engulfing it, and that the company has resorted to legal action when an anonymous source revealed how officials had allegedly slashed salaries by a quarter and sacked staff, The Eye can reveal.
One report in WalesOnline proclaimed: “Good news for holidaymakers as a budget airline has announced a new permanent base at Cardiff Airport providing flights to destinations across Europe and Egypt. Wizz Air will also create 40 jobs as it brings nine new routes in a much-needed boost for the airport.”
Managing Director Owain Jones said: “This (move to Cardiff) reflects Wizz Air’s continued commitment to serving the UK market and generating economic growth, as we create local jobs, stimulate the tourism and hospitality industries and deliver on our promise of providing affordable, direct flights to exciting holiday destinations”.
But an aviation critic has told The Eye: “The reality is this is just one 200 seater Airbus 321 serving the bucket and spade brigade”.
Others on social media have also been sceptical, with one onlooker saying: “Wizz is a low-cost disruptor airline”. Recent comments about CA’s performance generally have been damning too. A former worker at CA, who said he had been at the airport for 19 years declared that he was sad to see the direction it has now taken.
Andrew Smith said on Facebook (FB) that CA was “Once a thriving airport with many overseas carriers”. He added: “Now they have 3 or 4, which are just bucket and spade flights…….sad times”.
Another FB message from a different person was sent directly to CA and also highlighted the problems. He stated angrily: “I resent flying from Bristol..”.
The disturbing news about Wizz Air (WA) is also set against a worrying backdrop, with the last Boeing 747s leaving the contentious airport, and executives there facing major challenges. The withdrawal of the Jumbo Jets marks the end of an era, and the potential loss of a huge number of jobs in South Wales of workers who maintain the fleet.
It comes as well, after a further flight specialist posted on social media about CA that “the situation is dire”.
A few days ago the departure board at the airport showed only TWO flights.
The last 747 (Jumbo Jet) has now gone, leaving CA virtually empty.
The maintenance base next door, used to look after the fleet of 30 747s which have now been scrapped, meaning a massive drop in future work.
There will be 120 fewer engines plus replacements to maintain, and the nearby facility at Nantgarw will also be severely affected – it is likely that the pilots and the long haul cabin crew could now be facing redundancy.
The airport was bought using taxpayers’ money for £52 million when another in Scotland was purchased for £1, but it has been less than successful, and the Dutch airline KLM has confirmed it is suspending flights from Amsterdam to Cardiff, until next February.
It also puts centre-stage the airport’s alarming link-up with a state-controlled airline from a country accused of supporting terrorism, which was also reported with extraordinary hoopla in the mainstream media in Wales, and announced with the same enthusiasm by senior politicians.
Yet Eion Coates, the head of aviation at the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), had a slightly different view about WA than the mainstream media in Wales. He told AeroTime News (ATN): “Our biggest concern is that the company (WA) has both the money and the time to pick up all domestic routes that are now open in Europe”.
The shocking report about WA in ATN included allegations from a former pilot with the airline, that some of his colleagues had been sacked, as well as other flight crew having their salaries cut by 25 per cent, after letters were sent signed by managers at their headquarters in Budapest. Yet it seems that many people were reluctant to take WA to court as they were hoping to get their positions back in the cockpit, after an ‘assessment’.
CA has, though, become used to dealing with difficult headlines, and the long term outlook for the airport after the lockdown appears bleak. The specialist who analysed recent events at CA, posted on Facebook (FB) “the situation is dire… the survival of the airport as a Civil concern is dependent on how long Mr Drakeford (Mark Drakeford – the First Minister of Wales [FMW]) is willing to pump our money into the place – plus a bit of luck” with a worried face emoji after the disturbing message.
The departure or scrapping of the British Airways (BA) 747 fleet that has been parked near Cardiff will mean fewer aircraft are maintained, and fewer engines overhauled at nearby Nantgarw.
The alarming news comes amid other problems for BA, as the fleet is working at a fraction of its normal level because of the pandemic.The Cardiff maintenance base belongs to BA although it is leased from the airport.
The passenger numbers too for CA are worrying – 1.6 million set against 8.6 million for Bristol Airport. Jet 2 have joined Ryanair and Easyjet in further expanding movements at Bristol, while CA has little or no scheduled services left. This is for an airport bought by the taxpayer for £52 million when Glasgow Prestwick cost the Scottish Governmnet just £1.
But in December 2012, the First Minister of Wales (FMW) at the time, Carwyn Jones, had said, when the airport was purchased by the WG, that it should make a “return to the Welsh taxpayer”. Plaid Cymru (PC) welcomed the announcement as well, and declared that CA needed to be a “shopfront” for Wales, but the Conservatives (C) demanded evidence that nationalisation would provide value, and the Liberal Democrats (LD) warned it would become a “money pit” for public funds.
In North Wales as well there could be repercussions, as BA is also scrapping many of its old Airbus models, the wings for which are made in Broughton, where officials have already announced that 3,200 workers have been furloughed and production has been cut. Details of the huge number of those who have been furloughed at the plant, came in addition to alarming revelations that 500 people were also furloughed by the contractor Guidant.
Meanwhile the tie-up with state-controlled Qatar Airways (QA) has also proved problematic for CA, with flights suspended. The UK Government has also told potential travellers to the country they faced major risks, and it stated on its advice website: “Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in Qatar“. Eight sovereign nations around the world have severed diplomatic ties altogether with Qatar and in July 2017 it was reported that the state had been cut off by some of its neighbours over alleged terrorist support.
Qatar denies backing groups linked to Islamic State (IS) although it does admit it supports the Muslim Brotherhood.
The emirate had refused to comply with an initial list of 13 demands, saying it would not agree to any measures that threatened its sovereignty or violated international law. Yet it was told by its neighbours that they wanted it to accept six broad principles on combating extremism and terrorism.
Qatar also hosted the ousted ruler of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who was convicted of corruption in a Sudanese court on December 14 but he seems unlikely to be extradited to stand trial for overseeing genocide in Darfur. It kept silent too as hundreds of thousands of Algerians protested, chanting “the people want the regime to go”. Hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘aid’ money has been given as well by Qatar to Hamas, the group which holds sway in the Gaza Strip, and which has been designated by the USA as a terrorist organisation.
Meanwhile Qatar’s successful football World Cup bid has also prompted major questions, putting under more strain the relationship with CA. The Sunday Times, has disclosed that the tiny desert state had secretly offered £400 million to FIFA just 21 days before the worrying decision was announced to hold the 2022 football World Cup there.
But it has not simply been the contentious alliance with an airline controlled by Qatar and an expert warning that the situation for CA was “dire”, which have been disturbing – there has also been the money.
It may receive another £6.8 million, after getting a ‘loan’ of £21.2 million last year, which is itself an extension on the £38.2 million the airport could already ‘borrow’ from the Welsh Government (WG), coming on top of the public money used to buy CA in the first place.
Welsh Conservative MS Russell George, who speaks on transport issues, said: “This is good money after bad. Tot up the purchase price of £52 million, the current £38.2 million loan, and last year’s £21.2 million loan, and the airport could be in hock to the taxpayer to the tune of more than £110 million since it was bought by the government in 2013. This is unsustainable…”
Andrew RT Davies MS for South Wales Central (and one time leader of the Welsh Conservative Party) said: “… this typifies how rudderless this Labour Welsh Government currently is. One minute they’re cancelling an M4 relief road that would help boost Rhoose citing environmental factors, then declaring a climate emergency, and now they’re chucking millions at an airport. Shambolic. Wales deserves better than this chaotic and slapdash management of our economy.”
News that there is a startling background to the latest ‘coup’ in landing a budget airline for headline-grabbing CA, could be further evidence that “Wales deserves better than this…”.
And despite the evidence, the association with QA was widely welcomed, both by the mainstream media and among prominent Welsh politicians.
The flight to Qatar’s Hamed International Airport was described positively in the South Wales Echo as providing “capacity for 150,000 passengers a year, as well as significant freight capacity for Welsh exporters at around 10 tonnes a flight”.
In April 2017 BBC Wales’s Economics Correspondent Sarah Dickins said approvingly: “The new direct route from Cardiff to Doha is a reminder not just that the economy of Qatar is growing significantly but also that trade between Wales, the Arab world and beyond is increasing”.
When the first flight from Doha was due, WalesOnline reported faithfully the words of Roger Lewis, then Chairman of CA, when he said: “This is a pivotal moment for Cardiff Airport, for Wales and the South West of England. The far reaching consequences of this service for passengers and businesses will be transformational”.
The same praising word was used by the Chief Executive of CA at the time, Deb Bowen Rees, who told the South Wales Echo: “The Qatar Airways service has been transformational…”.
In interviews, Carwyn Jones (First Minister of Wales when it was announced) stated: “We would like to work with his excellency (Akbar al Baker the Chief Executive of QA)“. Mr Jones tweeted that he “welcomed” the first QA flight into CA and said it represented a “huge boost” for Wales. The then Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns informed us: “The new flight from Cardiff to Doha plugs our entrepreneurs straight into one of the most dynamic economies in the Middle East, and an airport which offers a further 150 global destinations”.
It seems that the controversies swirling around CA have also been “transformational”, as officials might say, and the news about WA’s background just adds to them.
Tomorrow – disturbing revelations of how the Labour Welsh Government backs a controversial nationalist website which promotes independence.
Our Editor Phil Parry’s memories of his astonishing 37-year award-winning career in journalism (which did NOT involve welcoming news of an airport linking up with a contentious state airline) as he was gripped by the rare disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now!