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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 00:00 GMT
Regional airports cleared for take-off

By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News

The entrance to Bournemouth Airport
Bournemouth wants to triple passenger numbers in five years

Their Ryanair flight to Shannon is not due to leave for a couple of hours yet but a handful of passengers have arrived early to check in at Bournemouth Airport.

Among them are William Cussen and his wife, regular travellers who have also flown to the US and the Caribbean from Bournemouth.

Living 15 miles away, they prefer using their local airport than catching flights from either Heathrow or Gatwick.

"Travelling up to Heathrow you can't guarantee that the roads are going to be clear so that means staying in a hotel and leaving the car somewhere," Mr Cussen says.

"The time involved is quite considerable. Also, the check-in queues are generally much shorter."

Flying high

The couple are among a growing band of people using smaller airports to travel from the UK to destinations in Europe and further afield.

Passenger traffic through regional airports is growing twice as fast as that through the five main airports in the London area.

Nearly a dozen airports enjoyed double digit growth in passenger numbers in 2005 and Bournemouth - which grew 68% - is now handling nearly a million passengers a year.

Sally Windsor, Bournemouth Airport's marketing manager
Passengers like the friendliness and courtesy and airlines like the fact we can turn them around quickly and get them away on time
Sally Windsor, Bournemouth Airport marketing manager

Staff at Bournemouth believe its size is a factor in its success, with its compact layout and emphasis on customer service ensuring most people have to wait no more than 15 minutes to check in.

"With the buildings we have, which are not perfect, we manage to put a million people through," says marketing manager Sally Windsor.

"That goes back to quality of service. Passengers like the friendliness and courtesy and airlines like the fact that we can turn them around quickly and get them away on time."

Airlines are demanding customers, particularly low-cost carriers whose appeal to passengers and investors lies in their ability to run a maximum number of flights with minimum delays.

"A 25 minute turnaround time is what is demanded of us and we achieve that," says Ms Windsor, whose customers include EasyJet, Air Berlin, ThomsonFly and Wizz Air.

Budget catalyst

The growth of budget airlines, many of which cannot get regular slots nearer the capital or deliberately opt for smaller airports, has proved a real catalyst for regional aviation.

They have given well-established airports like Manchester and Birmingham - which handle more than 30 million passengers between them - and smaller sites like Bournemouth, Exeter and Inverness a real incentive to develop their operations.

Easyjet plane at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport
Low cost carriers have revitalised many airports

"They have lowered their prices to get airlines in and it has been a virtuous circle," says John Strickland, a former KLM and Buzz Air executive who now runs his own aviation consultancy.

"For airports like Liverpool, it has changed their future."

Liverpool now offers more than 40 international flights a day, compared to just a couple in the early 1990s.

For its part, Bournemouth offers flights to a plethora of destinations serving a range of very different markets.

These include ski flights to Geneva, services to Prague and Dublin geared to stag and hen parties and flights to Spain filled with retired people - many of whom have second homes in the sun.

Air Berlin recently launched a service from Bournemouth to Paderborn in Germany aimed at army families, an example of the airport's ability to cater for local demand.

Long-haul ambitions

Regional airports are also spreading their wings further afield, serving a growing number of long haul destinations.

Exeter and Doncaster-Sheffield offer services to Canada while Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol all have flights to the US.

The dynamics suggest there is continued growth to be had
Dr Harry Bush, Civil Aviation Authority

To one industry expert, this shows they are becoming more "commercially minded and responsive to different airlines' needs".

"Regional airports have been doing well and the dynamics suggest there is continued growth to be had," says Dr Harry Bush, group director of economic regulation at the Civil Aviation Authority.

The increasing popularity and strong growth prospects of regional airports has marked them out as attractive investment opportunities, prompting a flurry of recent takeover activity.

A consortium led by construction firm Balfour Beatty and London City Airport recently won an ultra-competitive 60m bid battle to buy Exeter Airport from Devon County Council.

Leeds-Bradford Airport has been put up for sale by its local authority owners, with industry experts believing it could fetch up to 40m.

Observers like John Strickland say growing private involvement is a good thing, citing the restrictions on many regional airports in France which remain in public ownership.

"I think it gives them commercial freedom which many of the regional governmental authorities won't be able to deliver," he says.

"It is a trend which is to be encouraged and is likely to continue."

Warnings and risks

Amid the many success stories, there have also been warnings of what can go wrong in such a dog-eat-dog industry.

Despite passenger numbers doubling in 2005, Kent International Airport in Manston was forced into administration after the collapse of its sole passenger airline, EU Jet.

People waiting to check in at Bournemouth Airport
Queues are often shorter at smaller airports

New owners have since resumed passenger flights but this illustrated how closely tied some airports are to the fortunes of individual airlines and how vulnerable this can make them.

At the same time, smaller airports face many of the same environmental constraints as their larger counterparts, as well as continuing uncertainty over future government policy regarding green taxes.

Mr Strickland says regional airports help the environment by reducing the number of short-haul flights out of London but even ardent supporters have some concerns.

"I suppose any increase in local airport activity does increase the number of flights and does have an adverse effect in that it maybe encourages people to go to local airports where they wouldn't normally have gone," conceded holidaymaker Mr Cussen.

All the same, he supports Bournemouth's 32m development plan which could see passenger numbers triple by 2012.

"Obviously if it expands more it will get busier but it will never be more than a regional airport."

The UK's fastest growing airports outside London

Bristol runway shut in safety row
07 Jan 07 |  Bristol/Somerset
Airport planning 32m expansion
14 Dec 06 |  Dorset

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