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News that a budget airline is increasing cheap flights from controversial Cardiff Airport (CA), while it’s been revealed another operator has faced hundreds of court orders, faced being heavily criticised by the regulator, and that it was condemned on a major social media forum, highlight the extreme folly of buying the facility with taxpayers’ money for £52 million, when a Scottish equivalent was purchased for just £1.
The operator, the Hungarian-based economy airline Wizz Air (WA) (which was due to fly earlier from CA), was attacked by the United Kingdom (UK) regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), over its handling of complaints about its service.
The latest quarterly data published by the CAA shows that WA ranked as the worst airline for complaints escalated to either resolution schemes which did not involve court, or were investigated by the regulator’s in-house team, in the third quarter of 2022, with 811 complaints per million passengers.
With the exception of Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) which has 555 complaints per million passengers, other airlines had less than half as many complaints, and many significantly less.
The regulator also recently questioned the time WA was taking to process claims received directly from passengers, and the large number of County Court Judgements (CCJs), which have been found against the airline that remain unpaid.
Anna Bowles, Head of Consumer Policy & Enforcement at the CAA, said: “We have made it clear to Wizz Air that its behaviour is unacceptable and that we expect overdue complaints and claims to be resolved in advance of Christmas”.
This is all set against the fact that it has been declared on the internet there are worries about the “long term viability” of CA.
The low-cost service-provider Ryanair HAS announced an increase in flights from CA to destinations including Dublin, but the outlook for WA is less rosy.
The Mail on Sunday’s investigative reporter Tony Hetherington looked into the background of a reader winning a court order against WA, and wrote: “…when I investigated I found records showing hundreds of court orders against the company…Wizz Air should shut up and pay up.
“Another told me: ‘There is no complaints department, just a brick wall’. His flight from Cyprus was cancelled three hours before departure, leaving him stranded. He is claiming £700. And a passenger who was awaiting takeoff from Gatwick was told that everyone had to leave the aircraft due to engine failure, which then delayed the flight for hours.”
Apparently emphasising these comments is the detail that in the summer, WA was named as the worst performer for UK flight delays among its peers.
Even the increase of flights from CA by Ryanair is not unalloyed good news. Four years ago it was involved in an ugly racism incident.
On 19 October 2018, a white man on one of its planes, racially abused a 77 year old black woman who was seated next to him. But Ryanair staff ultimately decided that the man should remain in his seat rather than be removed from the plane, with the woman he racially abused being asked to move seats instead. Another passenger filmed the whole incident and (unfortunately for Ryanair) posted it on social media. Negative (for Ryanair) international coverage followed, with a number of prominent politicians condemning the incident, and Ryanair’s response to it.
In May of this year the airline was the focus of more unwelcome headlines for leaving 14 of its passengers stranded at Palma airport.
According to The Independent, the mistake happened when ground crew divided passengers into groups to be taken on shuttles. Quoting Spanish publication Ultima Hora, the report said that when the final bus was full, the last group (of 14 passengers) was asked to wait for another shuttle. There was a woman among the travellers who was afraid of missing her scheduled chemotherapy appointment in Andalucia.
Information about Ryanair and WA has emerged at a difficult time for CA. The far more popular Bristol Airport (BA), gained planning permission to allow expanded capacity and lift the cap on the number of passengers there from 10 million to 12 million a year, as well as offer enhanced facilities.
Apart from one onlooker saying about CA: “I do really worry about the long term viability…”, others reported over the internet: “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 earlier, that he was “not happy” he now had to fly from “bloody Bristol”. A further announcement was: “There has never been sufficient demand in the winter from Cardiff”. Another 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 applause in the mainstream media, the route was 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 at 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, underline 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 in remarks by senior politicians.
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”.
The remarkable episodes recently at CA have even been the subject of our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.
They must be put against a backdrop of thriving airports in Scotland, which are almost the same distance apart as CA and BA. The time taken travelling between Edinburgh and Glasgow airports is over an hour, while it is only 18 minutes more between CA and BA, yet both are successful because their services complement each other rather than compete.
These critical comments also seem to confirm other worrying information about CA, with the expansion at BA, appearing to hammer yet another nail in the coffin of the Welsh airpot.
One aviation expert told us: “This (BA’s expansion) might be positive for Bristol, but it is TERRIBLE for Cardiff. I just don’t see how it can survive”. Another said: “Coming on top of everything else, this may be the death knell for Cardiff Airport. It is just in the wrong place, and people don’t want to fly from there”.
Meanwhile, 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) (which has now also ‘suspended’ its service), the Welsh Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters, MS, 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.
The Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Transport and Technology, Natasha Asghar, MS, 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”.
Recent incidents have cast a critical light on the purchase of CA using millions of pounds of public money. It was bought by the Welsh Government (WG) in 2013 for £52 million, while the Scottish Government (SG) purchased Glasgow Prestwick Airport (GPA) for just £1, yet a valuation of Cardiff’s in March last year said it was worth only £15 million.
Since the public acquisition, the WG has provided over £130 million in support in the form of loans and equity investment, while more millions were spent by the WG in trying to persuade QA to resume operations.
There has also been around £3 million in subsidies for the Cardiff to Anglesey air link (which was scrapped), as well as unknown amounts of incentives to airlines, some of which pulled out as soon as the money stopped.
But in December 2012, the First Minister of Wales (FMW) at the time, Carwyn Jones, had said, when the airport was about to be obtained, 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 “shop front” 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, which could, now, have been borne out. Despite the money lavished on it, the airport has still failed to achieve success compared to other regional airports, and languishes at the very bottom of the league table.
CA 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.
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 that while one budget airline has said it is upping flights from CA, it’s been revealed that another low-cost operator had hundreds of court orders against it, and that it was heavily criticised on a major social media forum.
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Regrettably publication of another book, however, was refused, because it was to have included names.