For Cardiff Airport to thrive it must be in private hands

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Press Release by Welsh Conservatives

On 18th December 2012, after years of criticising Cardiff Airport’s management, the Welsh Government announced its intention to buy Cardiff Airport.  Since its purchase three months later, the airport has faced mixed fortunes and is not yet making the major advances required to compete in the UK’s aviation race.

I disagreed with Labour’s decision to buy Cardiff Airport for £52million. I feel it is the role of government to create the conditions for economic growth and to raise the standard of public services, not to play monopoly by buying up transport infrastructure like airports.  However, now it is state-owned, Labour Ministers must work to improve it and make it a success.

Since it was taken over by the Welsh Government, they cannot be accused of failing to put money into it.  A £10million loan has been made available to improve the passenger experience, upgrade technology and introduce new facilities.  The first tranche of a £13million loan will be drawn down by Cardiff Airport next year to invest in route development, which is critical to the airport’s future success, broadening its range of airlines and choice of routes.  A further £600,000 has been spent on improving bus links between Cardiff Airport and the nearest train station, Rhoose, as well as Cardiff city centre.

While investment was clearly needed, money alone will not solve the challenges Cardiff Airport is facing.  The Civil Aviation Authority data for passenger movements at Cardiff Airport for November 2014 showed an 18% year on year fall.  Last year, we learnt that Cardiff Airport will next year have a single return flight in 2015 to Orlando, which, it is reported, will enable families to take advantage of the Chancellor’s abolition of Air Passenger Duty for under 12s.  Except that this single flight is during the school holidays.  It would be churlish not to welcome this route to Orlando, but a single annual flight will not bring the sort of step change in passenger and aeroplane movements that we want to see at Cardiff Airport.  Unfortunately the proposed new route to Norwich, although welcome, does not represent the major advance in destination choice and has question marks of its own about state aid rules.

Cardiff Airport has the potential to be massively successful as a major contributor to economic growth and prosperity in Wales, but it needs support to achieve this.  One of the airport’s biggest selling points is the ability to access 100-plus routes via Schiphol to cities around the globe, but it’s difficult to convincingly market this when Labour Ministers choose to travel on trade missions from Heathrow.  Even when they’re flying to destinations served by indirect or direct routes from Cardiff, Carwyn Jones and his colleagues seem to prefer to use other UK airports.  How does this inspire confidence in Cardiff Airport’s reputation as a gateway to the big financial centres in Europe and the powerhouse economies of the USA, India and China, as well as a way for overseas tourists to explore Wales?

I believe Cardiff Airport’s future success will be underpinned by an unapologetic focus on route expansion to offer consumers greater choice and give tourists easier travel into Wales.  We need to be securing major transatlantic routes from Cardiff and direct routes to some of the biggest economies in Europe and the wider world.  The £13million loan for route development will surely help, but I fear that the civil service mentality that the Welsh Government brings with it, may not have the necessary aviation and private sector experience to help the airport succeed.  The way in which the civil service operates is vastly different from the world of business and that’s one of the reasons I think Cardiff Airport should, as soon as is practical, be returned to the private sector.  The taxpayer has invested a lot of money in Cardiff Airport, way above the original £52million price tag.  I think the time will soon come when taxpayers should get their money back.  Depending on the value of the airport at the time, this could put £50 back in the pocket of the average worker in Wales.

Cardiff Airport has faced numerous challenges since it was nationalised last year.  To point those out and question the performance of its Labour Minister owners is not to talk the airport down, but to demand better.  Cardiff Airport is an important part of Wales’ transport infrastructure and can generate growth in the Welsh economy, but it needs Labour Ministers to show confidence in it and act to increase passenger and aeroplane activity.

Byron Davies AM is the Shadow Transport Minister and Welsh Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales West.

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