Christine Jardine: Would Oor Wullie airport fly?

Prestwick Airport. Picture: Robert Perry
Prestwick Airport. Picture: Robert Perry
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A petition to rename Prestwick after Robert Burns shows the nonsense of borrowing famous names, writes Christine Jardine

Is it just a flight of fancy? Or is the petition to rename Glasgow Prestwick Airport “Robert Burns International” a serious attempt to save the ailing airport?

Don’t get me wrong, I like Robert Burns and I firmly believe that we need to ensure a future for Prestwick airport.

But putting the two together? I’m not convinced it will be enough to turn around years, no decades, of decline. It’s not that I am against naming airports after individuals per say. The opposite in fact. JFK and Charles de Gaulle, in New York and Paris respectively, are probably the most significant and successful examples of an important cultural trend.

And there is no doubt that naming one of South Africa’s International airports – Johannesburg, perhaps – after Nelson Mandela would be a fitting recognition of that country’s most famous son.

Each of the three is a modern leader associated with a turning point in their nation’s history. They all also had an impact on wider world history.

Aeroport du Paris du Nord was renamed Charles de Gaulle after the Second World War hero, president and founder of the French Fifth Republic, on completion of its redevelopment in 1974. De Gaulle was president when the project began.

New York’s Idlewild was renamed JFK in memory of the US president following his assassination in 1963.

While the names are fitting and lasting tributes, they also make a statement about national identity and are associated with figures who would have used the airport.

By the same token, I can see why Liverpool and Belfast chose to recognise such significant modern cultural figures as John Lennon and George Best – local heroes who made an international contribution in their fields.

Although, interestingly, Memphis has long resisted attempts to be renamed Elvis Presley International on the grounds both that he is recognised elsewhere in the city and that he is not the only significant figure in the city’s history.

While each of those examples are much-loved and relatively modern figures, other airport renaming exercises are decidedly underwhelming.

I’m really not convinced about the wow factor of Robin Hood Sheffield and Doncaster Airport. There is a point when the whole “let’s name the airport after someone famous” strategy begins to take on an air of desperation.

A commercial motivation may be fair enough, but if the best you can come up with turns out to be someone less than instantly recognisable the world over, what will you gain?

And even if you do have that kind of worldwide brand up you sleeve, will it be enough on its own? Or even appropriate?

Take Dundee, for example. There is currently a move to reinvigorate the city’s airport. Expand. Put it on the map. Maybe rename it.

Oor Wullie International, anyone? Why not?

Well, there is a perfectly good reason why not. Most people fly to an airport because it’s closest to the area they want to visit and has convenient flights.

The dedication of JFK and Charles de Gaulle was not for the airports themselves but to allow recognition of their leaders. Paris and New York are two of the world’s most-visited cities. It is quite reasonable to argue that their airports would be successful regardless of what they were called.

In this country oil executives fly into Aberdeen Airport from all over the world because it offers exactly what they want: easy access to the energy capital of Europe.

And our capital’s airport has rapidly expanded because it is what it says on the terminal building: Edinburgh. No other name is necessary.

Prestwick’s problem is not its name. It has already added “Glasgow” to its title in an effort to make it seem closer to our biggest city. That didn’t work and there is no reason to believe that naming it after our best-known writer would, either.

What Prestwick needs to survive and prosper as a 21st-century international air terminal goes much deeper than that – it needs huge investment, it needs promotion, and most of all it needs flights.

Those are the changes that will make a real difference to its future. If all of that happens then maybe, just maybe, there might be a point in renaming it. It might even be that a successful, expanding airport in Ayrshire would choose to be named after its most famous son.

Or perhaps the Scottish Government, as its new owners, might decide that Burns already has his own day and supper, and opt instead to name it after a Scots politician or statesperson they believe has international appeal. No prizes for guessing whose moniker the current administration at Holyrood would like to see displayed above the concourse.

But surely all those other measures and improvements have to come first.

The last time I visited Prestwick airport I was overcome with a sense of nostaglia, and loss.

I remembered as a child the excitement of being taken to what seemed then a busy and important place to meet family who were coming home from North America. Even Elvis Presley had been there.

While I waited impatiently, my Dad explained something I didn’t quite grasp about the airport’s location and weather making it a perfect transatlantic gateway. But it was the 1970s and all of that was about to change as the air traffic was diverted a few miles up the road. Increasingly over the next few years ours, and many other family reunions, took place in the shiny new arrivals hall at what had been Abbotsinch but was now Glasgow Airport.

Perhaps, with hindsight, that is the name change that mattered most to Prestwick.