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Comment: Why Prestwick should be grounded

Terry Murden. Picture: Julie Bull

Terry Murden. Picture: Julie Bull

  • by TERRY MURDEN
 

NOBODY wants to see businesses close down, but there does come a time when some have to admit the game is up. Prestwick Airport is surely one such case.

The Scottish Government stepped in last year to “rescue” the airport, paying just £1 to its former owner Infratil under which it was loss-making and haemorrhaging passengers.

Its only airline, Ryanair, is squeezing so tight on charges that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted to the Holyrood parliament yesterday that the facility will not make a profit for several years and could lose more passengers.

Even so, she announced that the government will spend a further 
£10 million upgrading it. Sounds like a good investment, eh? The numbers should have told ministers that they had bought a dud and taxpayers should demand to know why they are being burdened with it.

The answer, of course, is that this is another case of political expediency in the name of good government. With a referendum looming, ministers are keen to present themselves as a caring administration that will look after Scotland’s interests. Except that by keeping this pointless airport open, they are doing no such thing.

In fact, they could be harming Scotland’s interests. Through its latest “investment”, which is in the form of a loan, the government will spend five times as much sending Scottish sunseekers to Benidorm and bringing them home again as it spends marketing Scotland.

Add the potential damage to the competitiveness of nearby Glasgow Airport and this looks like one bad piece of decision making by a government that aspires to managing the entire Scottish budget.

Whatever the Deputy First Minister says, this is a subsidy for one airport, although Holyrood insists it does not breach state aid rules because it is a loan provided on a commercial basis. Sceptics remain unconvinced and are already demanding further clarification on this point.

As for the numbers stacking up, Sturgeon said Prestwick does not depend for all its revenues on passenger traffic and that retail will become a bigger contributor through improvements planned for the terminal.

But she also said the government’s plans will take account of a reduced Ryanair schedule. That suggests passenger numbers will decline. If so, who will want to take new retail units and where will the extra revenue come from?

Prestwick was built at a time when a fuel-stop was required for transatlantic flights. Time and technology have overtaken it and it no longer 
fulfils this function. It is like 
Hampden Park, an outdated facility in the wrong place.

There was some discussion yesterday about renaming Prestwick “Robert Burns International”, a 
somewhat lofty title that would recognise Ayrshire’s most famous son, but suggests ambitions that it will struggle to maintain.

A more appropriate name would be “White Elephant” to acknowledge its increasing irrelevance, or maybe “Sturgeon’s folly” in honour of the minister who may one day have to explain why she has wasted public money.

 

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