Published on July 24th, 2018 | by Mark Dwyer0
Forty years at City of Derry Airport
By Declan Hasson
Once described by travel writer, Simon Calder, as one of his favorite ‘little’ airports, City of Derry is this year celebrating a milestone anniversary. After forty years of investment and healthy growth, the local authority airport is now facing challenging times.
Although the City of Derry Airport (CoDA) was originally an RAF wartime base, it’s ‘civilian’ role began in 1978. Encouraged by the promise of significant grant aid from the European Economic Community (EEC), Derry City Council, as part of its long-term plan to improve its transport infrastructure, decided to take control of the ‘disused’ airfield in 1978 and develop it as a regional airport.
The first year was spent revamping the two original runways (840 and 810 meters) and building a ‘pre-fab’ terminal and control tower. Apart from an air-taxi company and an established flying club, the new-look Eglinton Airport, as it was then known, had yet to attract a commercial airline.
However, in April 1979, Scottish airline Loganair, was persuaded to commence scheduled services, using De Haviland Twin Otters, to and from Glasgow. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with the airline, which was to last almost thirty years.
The council was firmly focused on route development and in 1981, a new Irish airline, Avair, began twice daily services to Dublin, using a ten-seater Beech King Air 200. The service was partly subsidized by the Irish government, but survived less than two years.
Success on the important Dublin route remained elusive for three subsequent carriers, Aer Arann, Shannon Executive Aviation and Ireland’s oldest ‘commercial’ airline, Iona National Airways that collectively operated a variety of aircraft, including Islanders, Metroliners and Embraer Bandeirantes.
Success finally arrived in 1989, when Aer Lingus, with its huge marketing advantage, was able to generate a big increase in passenger numbers. Beginning with the Shorts 360, the state airline soon introduced the larger Fokker 50, before changing to the much faster Saab 340 in its third year of operations.
In the meantime, Loganair had added Manchester along with a seasonal service to Blackpool and The Isle Of Man to its ‘Derry’ services. The airport was now handling a new generation of turbo prop aircraft, including Shorts 360s, BAe ATPs, Jetstream 31s, Saab 340s along with BAe 146 jets. Passenger numbers for 1989 were up 24,000 to 35,000.
The loss of Aer Lingus in 1992 was an unexpected blow, but the advent of The Single European market in that year and the availability of substantial grant-aid from the European Regional Development Fund, encouraged the council to develop the airport further, taking it into the modern era.
In 1994, the new City of Derry Airport was unveiled to much acclaim. The new 30,000 square foot, state-of-the-art terminal building received a prestigious award from the Royal Institute of British Architects, describing it as: “gleaming, elegant and robust and giving an agreeable buzz of excitement.”
Apart from the new terminal, the east/west runway was upgraded and extended to 1650 meters, along with the installation of an instrument landing system. The ‘new’ airport soon caught the interest of a number of airlines. In 1995, Jersey European (now FlyBe) established a base at CoDA, ‘feeding’ passengers to its newly developed and extensive hub network at Belfast City. With up to six departures every day, passenger numbers grew steadily, to an all-time record of 70,000.
Also in 1995, a new Scottish start-up, Macair, with a fleet of three Jetstream 31s, established a base at the airport. Operating to London Stansted, Birmingham and Edinburgh, the fledgling airline unfortunately struggled to survive and lasted less than one year.
The arrival of Ryanair in 1999, generated the biggest growth ‘spurt’ at CoDA. Launching daily return services to London Stansted, with the 150-seater Boeing 737-200, passenger numbers soon exceeded the psychological barrier of 100,000.
Over time, the low cost carrier would deliver thousands of passengers through CoDA. In the following ten years, Ryanair would introduce services to Liverpool, East Midlands, Glasgow (Prestwick), Bristol, Birmingham and London (Luton). By 2008, Ryanair accounted for 90% of all airport traffic, which by then totaled 442,000 passengers. Passenger numbers had effectively doubled from 1999 to 2008.
Throughout this ‘golden period’, Loganair continued to operate services to Glasgow International, Manchester and Dublin, the latter being a ‘public service obligation’ (PSO) route awarded by the Irish government from 2001 to 2008. It was the most successful Dublin/ Derry service in CoDA’s history, but the route became one of the many victims of the great financial crash of 2008/9.
The airport’s dependency upon Ryanair was aptly demonstrated in the boom years from 2003. In order to accommodate the new Boeing 737-800 series aircraft, the airport was compelled to strengthen and lengthen the main runway once again.
In a highly controversial move, the airport authorities applied for the removal of 17 family homes, that were deemed to be too close to the proposed runway extension. In a turbulent process that continued for over three years, the end result was a 45% increase in passenger throughput from 2005 to 2006.
‘Holiday flights’ have been a feature of life at CoDA since 1994, with local travel company Lewis Fastravel offering packages to Jersey in conjunction with British Airways, using Dash 8 turboprops. In 1999, Falcon Holidays launched summer season holiday flights to Majorca, with Reus (Salou), Barcelona, Lanzarote and Faro being added in subsequent years. Aircraft types included Boeing 737s, 757s, MD83s and Airbus 319s and 320s.
At the peak of the holiday season, CoDA was also handling a growing number of pilgrimage flights to Lourdes and Medjegore. In the very busy years of 2004 and 2005, there were complaints that the departure lounges in the new CoDA terminal were unable to cope. Even the car parks were under pressure, with temporary facilities having to be set up airside, on a ‘disused’ taxiway!
In 2002, an Irish based tour company, in conjunction with Swiss airline Crossair, launched holiday charters from Zurich to CoDA, using Saab 2000 aircraft. Most of the ‘inbound’ holiday makers were heading for the big fishing destinations in Donegal and Fermanagh. In response to the growing demand for even more holiday choices, Ryanair launched its first ‘international’ routes from CoDA to Alicante, Tenerife and Faro, for a number of seasons, from 2009.
By this stage, with continued growth anticipated, a major extension to the terminal building was built, in order to meet EU customs and immigration regulations, along with a Duty Free shop. But the investment co-incided with the ‘fallout’ from the financial ‘crash’, which saw passenger numbers drop 21% in the following year. The main reason for the fall was due to a sizeable reduction in Ryanair’s frequencies across all routes.
As part of the local council’s long-term plan for CoDA, a separate company was set up, late in 2009, to take responsibility for the airport’s day to day operations and develop a more broad based commercial strategy. In 2010, a general aviation maintenance facility and a helicopter training school opened on the airport’s western apron.
The airport has also been host to a number of fixed-wing flying schools, including the airport’s longest serving ‘tenant’, the Eglinton Flying Club. Still going strong after almost 50 years, the club is one of the longest surviving anywhere in the British Isles.
With the fall in passenger traffic from a peak of 442,000 in 2008 to just 349,000 by the end of 2009, the new airport authority engaged the services of Regional and City Airports Management (RCAM) to develop more routes, safeguard existing routes and reduce operational expenditure. The council was coming under increasing pressure, as it was funding all of the airport’s running costs, despite the fact that over 40% of all passengers originated from other council areas, especially county Donegal. There was widespread consensus that funding should be shared by all councils in the airport’s catchment area, a situation that exists with many successful regional airports in the UK.
In 2011, RCAM managed to recover some lost business with passenger numbers up to 405,000, a level it maintained for a further two years. However, the increase in the rate of Airport Passenger Duty (APD) began to undermine much of the airport’s business, especially the holiday charter sector. By 2014, passenger numbers were back to 2009 levels at 350,000 and falling.
APD remains the airport’s biggest problem as it continues to ‘stifle’ potential route development and curtail existing services. For the airport authority, the announcement, in 2016, that Ryanair was to abandon its Stansted service came as a major blow. The loss of what was CoDA’s biggest route, averaging over 150,000 passengers annually, was a huge setback. Ryanair had cited the ‘Brexit’ vote as the main reason for its decision. For RCAM, the big challenge was to find a replacement airline to take over this vital route. On 26th March 2017, Ryanair operated its final departure from CoDA to Stansted.
On 2nd May 2017, BMI Regional was awarded a UK PSO licence to operate a twice daily service to Stansted, with a 49 seater Embraer 145. The licence will expire in May 2019. The loss of the lucrative Ryanair service to Stansted has been the main reason why passenger throughput has fallen from 290,000 to 190,000 in 2017.
Currently, the only routes operating from CoDA are Stansted (BMI Regional), Glasgow International and Liverpool (Ryanair) and a summer service to Majorca, operated by ASL airlines. However, the winter timetable sees Ryanair move its Scottish operations to Edinburgh, while Loganair are making a welcome return to the Glasgow route. Airport management is confident that passenger numbers will see a modest growth in 2018.
CoDA’s twenty-year master plan, drawn up in 2014, envisaged the establishment of a deep maintenance facility for Airbus 320 and Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft on the airport ‘estate’. In September 2016, the Office of First and Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive formally approved a £7million funding package for the further development of CoDA. The money was to be spent on the construction of the maintenance facility (£4.5m) and route development (£2.5m). Hopes were high that new services to Manchester and Birmingham would be a realistic possibility in the short term.
After almost twenty-two months, CoDA has yet to receive this critical investment. The official reason given was that because of the collapse of the Executive in January 2017, the funding could not be released, without ‘ministerial sign-off’. There is genuine concern that such ‘red tape’ might cause significant damage to the airport’s long term credibility.
For now, the airport finds itself having to operate against the background of two major uncertainties. A favorable resolution to Brexit that preserves the ‘open skies’ policy across Europe, as well as the reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Executive, are CoDA’s best hopes for securing its future. But probably the more serious issue remains the punitive impact of APD. It is estimated that Northern Ireland’s airports are currently losing 1.5 million passengers per annum to Dublin and Ireland West (Knock), where no APD exists. The damage that this single issue has caused to CoDA is evidenced, more particularly, by the loss of most of the ‘holiday charter’ and pilgrimage flights.
CoDA continues to handle a large amount of corporate traffic, including ‘air ambulance’ flights. Much of this due to the growing importance of Altnagelvin Area Hospital, located just five miles from the airport. Economists argue that the airport is a key component of the ‘business infrastructure’ of the north west of Ireland and that it contributes around £15m of GVA (gross value added) to the local economy.
The current setback in terms of passenger throughput is expected to be temporary, but politics at the local and national level have disrupted CoDA’s twenty-year master plan quite significantly. Yet from its humble beginnings, in 1978, operating from a tiny pre-fabricated terminal building, CoDA is today, four decades and six million passengers later, a modern, forward-thinking airport – with realistic ambitions. It has every reason to be proud of what it has so far achieved.
By Declan Hasson