Chris Marshall: Things are taking off for air passengers

THE news that budget airline Ryanair is to further expand its operations in the Capital is another welcome boost for Edinburgh Airport at a time when, by rights, it should be suffering from the effects of the recession.

Once regarded as the poor relation of its Glasgow counterpart, the airport has grown steadily in recent years and now caters for about nine million passengers a year, compared with Glasgow's six million.

However, yesterday's announcement, which sees new routes added to Marrakech, Faro, Paris and Kaunas in Lithuania, says as much about Ryanair.

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The no-frills airline has undertaken an aggressive expansion of its activities at Edinburgh, switching many routes from its original Scottish base at Prestwick.

Industry experts believe it has also attempted to move flights away from Stansted, with the London market now saturated by low-cost offerings from a host of other airports.

Outspoken chief executive Michael O'Leary recently singled out Edinburgh Airport as the sort of "forward thinking" place he likes to do business with.

It's clear why Ryanair would want access to Scotland's busiest airport and the country's tourism centre, but there are suggestions that the airline has also been attracted by being offered cheaper landing charges than those elsewhere.

All this adds up to more choice for passengers flying out of Edinburgh, but the airport does still continue to lag behind Glasgow in the sort of international destinations it offers.

While Edinburgh has short-haul destinations well covered, only New York – and now Marrakech – feature as non-European routes. Glasgow, in contrast, offers flights to a host of North American destinations and has a crucial link with Dubai, giving passengers access to the hub airport for Emirates, an airline covering much of Asia.

A planned link with Florida, which had been expected to launch at Edinburgh this summer, was among those which disappeared with the collapse of Flyglobespan, while plans for a new direct route to Dubai remain "aspirational" according to airport bosses.

Meanwhile, Ryanair's traffic at Edinburgh Airport is expected to grow to approximately 2.5m passengers a year as a result of the latest expansion.

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The airline will also increase its number of aircraft from five to six and will fly more frequently on nine existing routes, including Barcelona (Girona), Frankfurt, Malaga and Palma.

Gordon Dewar, managing director of the Edinburgh Airport, says attracting more flights has been a major coup. He says: "The fact that Edinburgh Airport is growing and attracting new routes in one of the worst times for aviation in recent memory is testament to the hard work we have done in understanding our customers and their needs.

"Edinburgh is one of the few UK destinations where its outbound passengers matches its inbound, underlining the importance of Edinburgh across Europe and further afield.

"We will continue to attract carriers to Edinburgh to increase the choice for passengers and continue to build our reputation as Scotland's airport of choice."

The number of passengers travelling through Scotland's two main airports has actually fallen, from a high of 17.8m in 2007 to 16.3m last year, and the effects of the economic downturn and the reduced number of business flights is unlikely to go completely unnoticed, despite Ryanair's expansion.

Richard Havers, an aviation writer and former airline executive, says passengers can expect savings in the short term, but that firms like Ryanair are not afraid to cut and run when things get tough.

"Ryanair are the carpetbaggers of the airline industry," he says. "They just drop in and out where they see an opportunity, they're not in for the long term. I'm not criticising them – they have a great business model – but they're not there to build markets.

"Edinburgh and Glasgow combined have seen a fall in passenger numbers in the last few years. BAA's predictions of growth from a few years ago are now so discredited that they're not worth the paper they're written on."

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Yesterday's announcement, and also news that 200 new jobs are to be created at Prestwick with the opening of a new 8m Ryanair hangar, came as the Competition Commission announced it would appeal a ruling that could allow BAA to keep all its airports.

The Spanish-owned airports group won an initial appeal against an order from the Competition Commission for it to sell Gatwick, Stansted and either Edinburgh or Glasgow airports within two years in December, on the grounds that the order was biased.

The commission's appeal creates further uncertainty about the future of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The commission's report, published in March last year, found that BAA's control of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted in London, and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland had resulted in poor service for passengers and airlines.

Clearly, there is still a better deal to be had for passengers, but in going from just two routes to more than 30 at Edinburgh in the past two years, Ryanair has done its bit in forcing down prices. What remains to be seen is how long the Irish carrier's love affair with Edinburgh will last.