Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.

Ayr today but gone tomorrow?

The decision to pump public money into Prestwick Airport does not make commercial sense, says KEN HOUSTON...

The suggestion that a change of name to “Robert Burns International” could help turn round the fortunes of Prestwick Airport is not new.

I recall the idea being touted a generation ago by Alan Devereux, former chairman of CBI Scotland and the Scottish Tourist Board, a former member of the SDA, and director of numerous private companies.

Another suggestion – mine this time – is that Prestwick could be renamed “Elvis Presley International”, as this was the only place “The King” set foot on British soil (during a stopover between Germany and his homeland in 1960 while serving in the US Army).

Or perhaps “Robert the Bruce International”, given that the family of Scotland’s hero monarch hailed from the nearby lands of Carrick?

But calling the place Elvis, Rabbie or Robert wouldn’t do any good in the long run because no title will change Prestwick’s basic failing – its location away from the main centres of population.

Unfortunately Prestwick does seem to have a sentimental pull on a section of the Scottish population, which may even have had some effect on the decision by the Scottish Government to pump in public money to save it from closure (Nicola Sturgeon is herself an Ayrshire lass).

This pull is largely due to Prestwick’s pioneering role in Scottish aviation – flights were taking place there before the First World War and the airport itself opened as far back as 1934. The Elvis connection has also given it a place in popular cultural history shared by no other airport in the UK.

Ironically, to some extent Prestwick does offer the best of both worlds: the coastal location makes it virtually fog-free and, unlike almost anywhere else in the UK, local households appear not to mind having an airport on their doorsteps.

However it was local electoral pressure, rather than its fog-free advantage, that enabled Prestwick to hold the exclusive title of “Scotland’s Atlantic Gateway” for so long. In a blatant piece of political gerrymandering (connived at both by the Conservative and Labour parties because Ayr was a highly marginal constituency), governments decreed that flights to North America from any airport in Scotland had to land at Prestwick either inbound or outbound. This led to the ludicrous situation whereby a fully-laden 757 which had just taken off from Glasgow for New York was compelled to land a few minutes later at Prestwick even if not a single passenger intended to board.

At the time both Glasgow and Prestwick were owned by the nationalised British Airports Authority which, when the ruling was eventually challenged in the courts, was one of the objectors.

Yes, you heard right: the owner of Glasgow Airport objected to the operation of non-stop fights to North America from…Glasgow Airport.

The situation was not helped by support for the Prestwick monopoly by articulate, letter-writing NIMBY’s from Bearsden and Milngavie who lived under the flight path to Glasgow Airport and wanted no disturbance to their lives, despite the clear disadvantage to the Scottish economy of government airports policy.

Thankfully, this nonsense ended with deregulation of the airport industry but by that time several English regional airports (most of which were not confined to the BAA straightjacket) had stolen a march in terms of transatlantic flights on their Scottish equivalents.

The reason why Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are successful and Prestwick is struggling is that the latter are located nine and eight miles from their respective city centres and within relatively easy access of a wider catchment population.

The market has made a decision on Prestwick – the airline operators with their wings and the travelling public with its feet.

This is why the Scottish government’s decision, shorn of its political calculation, doesn’t make sense. The Central Scotland population of four million is insufficient to  support three international airports and it is wrong for politicians to pump public money into one grounded by commercial reality to the possible disadvantage of the two others who seem to be flying high of their own volition.

[email protected]

Twitter: @PropPRMan