Shock news that the air link between South and North Wales has been scrapped after 15 years, shines the spotlight on a former first minister saying it was “vital to the economy”, as well as that Cardiff Airport (CA) should make a “return to the Welsh taxpayer”, when it was about to be bought with £52 million of taxpayers’ money.
In December 2012, the First Minister of Wales (FMW) at the time, Carwyn Jones, had made the latter firm declaration at a point when preparations were being undertaken before the multi-million purchase of the airport, even though the Scottish Government (SG) obtained Glasgow Prestwick Airport (GPA) for just £1.
The former controversial comment was also made by Mr Jones, and appeared to back the flight which has now been axed.
Operated as a Public Service Authority (PSA) route, the service between South and North Wales was funded by the Welsh Government (WG) to the tune of £2.9 million per year, with subsidised tickets meaning flights could be as low as £27.
The twice-daily (weekdays) route between CA and Anglesey (Ynys Mon), was used by ministers to connect with Cardiff Bay, and members of the public to travel between South and North Wales quickly.
But it had become the subject of high-profile criticism at the level of subsidy, as well as several airline failures, with the collapse of Citywing and the grounding for safety reasons of Links Air. Most recently it was operated by Eastern Airways using a Jetstream but the flight was grounded at the outbreak of the pandemic.
Announcing the dramatic decision to close the air link, Deputy Minister for Climate Change, with responsibility for transport, Lee Waters, MS, said: “The pandemic has driven huge change to the way people work, with a reduction in business travel over the past few years. We don’t think passenger levels will return to a level that makes this service viable economically or environmentally. Instead, we will invest the money saved from running the service into improving public transport in north Wales. This will benefit more people and help us reach our Net Zero target by 2050″.
Welsh Conservative Shadow Transport Minister, Natasha Asghar, MS, proclaimed that it was the right decision, but she questioned why it hadn’t been scrapped earlier saving millions of pounds, and said: “It is…disappointing that Labour ministers have only now axed the airlink. Instead of wasting some £10 million on the airlink, which hasn’t operated since the pandemic began, over the last three years, they should’ve taken decisive action and scrapped it as soon as it became a loss-making exercise.”.
As Ms Asghar’s comments make clear, the service has long been controversial, and not just because of the vast amounts of public money that were needed in subsidies. It was condemned for being a political, not economic route (despite what Mr Jones said), and was dubbed by critics ‘Ieuan Air’ (after a former leader of Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru [PC], who represented Ynys Mon, Ieuan Wyn Jones).
And, perhaps endorsing criticism that the air link was primarily used by politicians and bureaucrats, who needed to get to North from South Wales rapidly (or vice-versa), one regular on the aeroplane, PC MS for Ynys Mon, Rhun ap Iorweth, said on Twitter that he was “angry” about the way that the WG had dealt with this. Mr ap Iorwerth was concerned that it would result in job losses on Anglesey.
But this has not been the only controversy to have engulfed CA.
One onlooker wrote on social media: “I do really worry about the long term viability…”, others reported: “Unfortunately Cardiff is too close to Bristol…”, and “I wouldn’t call Cardiff a major airport…”. Another outraged traveller said on CA’s own Facebook (FB) page, that he was “not happy” he now had to fly from “bloody Bristol”. A further critic announced: “There has never been sufficient demand in the winter from Cardiff”. A further tourist proclaimed: “I flew to Tenerife on 13th Dec from Cardiff. Only 45 of us on the flight”.
Huge concern from flyers was shown on other sites too, after an internal service, which had been recently restored, was halted. Last year, direct flights from CA to Belfast were introduced, operated by Eastern Airways, but, even though the flights were greeted with enormous fanfare, the route has now been suspended. A Welsh website which reported the disturbing news, described CA as “troubled”.
A detractor said online that questions should be asked of the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru (WP/SC), while another stated that it was cheaper to fly from Bristol. A further critic, included in his comments a spoof news report, with a remark from a CA executive: “Never mind, we will just apply to our pals at the WAG (Welsh Assembly Government, the former Welsh Government) for another massive donation of tax-payer cash.”.
Other fury was directed, too, at the Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air (WA), which was initially attracted to CA but then ‘postponed’ flying from the airport. An aggrieved customer posted: “I had 5 flights booked with Wizz air for this year and had paid for club membership for 12 months. They then pulled the plug. So I now have credit notes. I hope they do actually start next year but I won’t be booking until I know for sure!”.
Such exasperation about events surrounding CA, emphasise how The Eye have long been alone in publicising problems at the airport, which are only now reflected by reports in the mainstream media, as well as now, in the closure of the link.
UK Aviation News has reported: “The future of Cardiff Airport (CWL/EGFF) has been thrown into doubt today following comments made by the Welsh Labour-controlled Government that owns the airport”, and the remarkable events recently at CA have even been the subject of our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.
Meanwhile, as Mr Waters alluded to in announcing the closure of the North-South route, but in stark contrast to the fanfare from senior officials, politicians, and the mainstream media in Wales when a link-up was announced between CA and the state-run Qatar Airways (QA), he acknowledged that providing incentives to airlines, as they have done with QA would be against climate change policies.
He admitted to other WP/SC politicians: “I don’t think that subsidising and encouraging domestic air travel is in keeping with the challenge of climate change that we have and that the Prime Minister is trying to claim great international leadership on; I think it is a contradiction”.
Other politicians, however, were disconcerted by the announcement. Ms Asghar said: “The minister’s comments were somewhat surprising given the number of taxpayer handouts Cardiff Airport has received since being taken into public ownership eight years ago by Labour.
“It is a little hypocritical of Labour to say subsidising air travel is a bad thing, when they’ve pumped in hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer cash, and continue to do so, into their failed vanity project. If Labour ministers are planning to stop subsidising Cardiff Airport because it flies in the face of climate change, then it raises some serious questions over its future. I have no doubt that Cardiff Airport could become a thriving transport hub but after this latest intervention its future is now hanging by a thread”.
CA has not been doing well recently and this closure will be another nail in its coffin. Passenger numbers plunged by 87 per cent during the height of the pandemic, with travellers there falling from 1,656,085 in 2019 to just 219,984 in 2020. Southampton Airport suffered an 83.4 per cent decline, London City Airport saw a drop of 82.3 percent in passenger figures, with numbers at Leeds-Bradford Airport going down by 81.2 per cent.
However, the man in charge blamed the WG, even in the face of ministers spending millions of pounds to keep his airport afloat, as well as in subsidies for the now axed North-South air route.
The CEO of CA, Spencer Birns told a committee at the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru (WP/SC): “There was more traffic handling at other airports than there was at Cardiff, but then don’t forget we’ve been in a position in Wales where, and quite rightly so, the government have been so heavily focused on the health of the nation, that actually encouraging people not to travel overseas has been a major factor in the Welsh government’s approach”.
Another ‘major factor’ may be the news that the air link between North and South Wales has been scrapped, putting centre stage comments from a former first minister, that it was “vital to the economy”…
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