Comment: Long haul ahead to revamp Prestwick

ALL eyes will be on Glasgow Airport this week, which is preparing to become the first Scottish recipient of the world’s largest passenger plane.

Passengers wait outside Prestwick Airport. Picture: Robert Perry

The Emirates Airbus 380 glides in on Thursday to mark ten years of service between Glasgow and Dubai, and the authorities are anticipating crowds on a par with the thousands that attended the plane’s first arrival in Manchester in 2010. Viewing areas will be limited to specific locations around the field, and parking restrictions on perimeter roads are planned.

A lucky few who haven’t booked one of the 525 seats on this one-off service will instead get an “exclusive personal tour” of the plane’s luxury features, which include unrivalled space and cutting-edge entertainment systems. Amid all this hoopla, Emirates has also announced plans to open a dedicated waiting lounge in the airport.

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Some 30-odd miles down the road at Glasgow Prestwick, the scene will be far more subdued.

The challenges facing the Ayrshire airport were underlined last week when First Minister Alex Salmond unveiled an agreement to secure regular flights between the Isle of Man and Glasgow. Glasgow – not Prestwick, which has been owned by the Scottish Government since it purchased the airport in a £1 “fire sale” by its previous owner, New Zealand’s Infratil.

Buying the airport – which lost nearly £9.8 million in its last year under Infratil’s ownership – was a political manoeuvre by the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon, the Ayrshire-born Deputy First Minister, is well aware that the area suffers from above-average unemployment and can’t afford the loss of as many as 1,400 jobs linked to Prestwick.

Questioned last month by Holyrood’s infrastructure committee, Sturgeon was forced to admit that Prestwick Airport may remain in public ownership indefinitely.

At best, it will be a good many years before it is returned to the private sector. Sturgeon, who also serves as the infrastructure secretary, has conceded that the £5m which the government has so far put into the airport will not be enough.

“I’m not suggesting it will be easy,” she said. “This will take a lot of time, effort and investment. We are potentially in it for the long haul.”

What the “long haul” might entail remains a mystery, as the Scottish Government’s adviser on Prestwick’s future strategy has yet to air any findings publicly. In the absence of substantive proposals, the debate last week turned to the somewhat more negligible issue of how we should refer to the Ayrshire airport.

A Facebook campaign has pulled in 7,000 supporters for a change of name to Robert Burns International, a moniker that could breach trade descriptions unless it manages to attract airlines flying beyond Europe’s bucket shop destinations. Before invoking the name of Scotland’s celebrated bard, let’s first see a clear path to recovery. «