Councillors Discuss Airport Improvements

The £4m package of improvements for St Mary’s airport, suggested by consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff, won’t increase visitor numbers but will enhance passengers’ impressions of the islands.

Councillors hope that £3m of European grants for general improvements will be secured in addition to the £1m offer from the Local Enterprise Partnership for runway repairs.

Members on the strategic transport committee have heard how the experts have itemised the £600,000 worth of improvements allocated for the passenger building. Their passenger survey backed up previous evidence that visitors were mainly from older age groups, travelled for leisure and lived in the southwest.

Those passengers wanted covered baggage facilities, better signage, TV and entertainment for youngsters and free Wi-Fi access.

Key stakeholders at the airport were worried that the standard of facilities and the level of service was falling. Councillor Marian Bennett pointed out that, while residents voiced concern about the costs of travel tickets, it was mainly because the price dissuades visitors and damages the economy.

Some survey respondents wanted flights from new departure points such as Birmingham. Richard McCarthy wondered if an extended turning area would allow longer distance planes to serve St Mary’s from that city and airports like Cardiff.

Julian Pearce said the consultants advised that larger planes could land if the runway was extended to around 1000m and widened, but that would require building it on concrete stilts into the sea or crossing 400m of farm land.

That work would cost around £12m before surveys and there’d be environmental issues to resolve.

Chief planning officer Craig Dryden felt that the runway work wouldn’t offer a major change in usage as larger planes would not be coming and he didn’t feel there would be environmental issues, but consultation with interested parties would continue.

Councillor Robert Dorrien-Smith favoured resurfacing and hardening the two runways, which could allow landing in different wind directions rather than building a longer one to encourage larger planes.

It was felt a single extended runway would be putting “all our eggs in one basket” and would be problematic in cross winds, especially in winter.

The consultants called for improved hangars to accommodate aircraft overnight and enable earlier starts to flying. Improved lights and navigation will also form part of the cash bid and will keep the airport open at times when flying would currently have to stop because of reduced visibility.

But Julian Pearce quoted the consultants warning that larger planes would actually increase ticket prices. There’s an assumption that bigger planes would reduce prices but  £26 would be added to each single fare because of air passenger duty for larger flights.

Diana Mompoloki hopes that the runway design can be turned around in eight weeks so work can begin over the winter. Terminal improvements could be phased to lessen impact on passengers.

Most work would be undertaken on Sundays to minimise disruption and because of that, Julian Pierce feels that Sunday flying would not be an issue for around 18 months.

That, he says, will allow tourism businesses to have a reasoned debate at the appropriate time.

There are still concerns about the ongoing viability of the airport. The European grant funding would require the airport plan to show it was sustainable.

Brian Lowen voiced Fred Ticehurst’s concerns after he was written to by senior airport staff concerned about how declining passenger numbers are impacting on budgets. Brian Lowen told members that Fred Ticehurst has been written to by senior airport staff, outlining their concerns about meeting upcoming budgets.

The consultants have offered ideas on the future ownership and management of the airport but Julian reminded members that if the airport buildings grant application was unsuccessful, future commercial opportunities would be restricted.

The airport working party will continue to develop the experts’ plans and Diana Mompoloki joked that its members had better not to take any holidays in the immediate future.


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