Tory ministers considered extending Prestwick monopoly

Prestwick Airport had a monopoly on intercontinental flights until 1990. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
Prestwick Airport had a monopoly on intercontinental flights until 1990. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
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Government ministers considered extending Prestwick Airport’s monopoly on transatlantic flights to protect a wafer-thin Conservative majority in the Ayr constituency.

Despite demands from Scottish business and international airlines to abandon the policy, declassified documents reveal ministers including Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind resisted, privately arguing that the “political factor should predominate”.

Since 1946 all intercontinental flights in and out of Scotland had been required to stop at Prestwick, despite similar restrictions elsewhere in the UK having long since been abolished.

It meant that even flights between Glasgow and the United States had to make the 25-minute hop to Ayrshire, which government advisors admitted was “ridiculous” and economically “highly questionable”.

Scottish courts struck down statutory rules enforcing the monopoly in April 1989, prompting renewed calls for a review of the policy.

CBI Scotland director John Davidson wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, to warn him there was “great concern in the industrial and commercial community Scotland at the lack of frequent and reliable air services across the Atlantic,” and that options for onward connections from Prestwick were “very poor”.

However, the Department for Transport was prepared to redraft its rules and persist with the restrictions. Briefing the Prime Minister on the issue, her top economic adviser Paul Gray warned that “the politics centre on the impact on George Younger’s highly marginal constituency”.

Mr Gray wrote that “both Paul Channon and Malcolm Rifkind believe that this political factor should predominate”.

Another briefing from the Number 10 policy unit states that Mr Channon “has been put under some pressure by George Younger not to review the policy lest Glasgow is confirmed the better gateway and his constituency loses out”.

The note adds that Mr Rifkind was “ambivalent” about reviewing the policy, but warns that a failure to do so would create a “huge outcry” among businesses.

At the 1987 general election, Ayr became the most marginal constituency in Scotland and the fourth most marginal in the UK when Mr Younger, who had served as MP for the area since 1964, beat Labour by just 182 votes.

At a meeting in May to discuss Prestwick, Mr Rifkind told the Prime Minister and fellow cabinet members that the monopoly should continue.

Mr Rifkind claimed that “the Glasgow business lobby and the tourist industry” represented “a minority”, according to a minute of the meeting.

The Scottish Secretary is recorded as having argued that “the majority of people, including MPs of all parties in Scotland, wanted the present policy maintained. There were substantial environmental and noise considerations favouring that course.”

Following the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988, the document suggests ministers also wanted to minimise the risk of an incident resulting in casualties on the ground from falling aircraft debris.

The Prime Minister summed up the meeting saying “all ministers were agreed on the present policy in favour of Prestwick, particularly post-Lockerbie”.

However, by the following year after a review of the policy, Mr Rifkind and the new Transport Secretary Cecil Parkinson had agreed to abandon the restrictions.

Mr Younger did not contest the next general election, becoming the chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland and being made a life peer in 1992.

Conservative candidate Philip Gallie held Ayr by just 85 votes, but lost the seat to Labour in 1997.

Edinburgh Airport is now Scotland’s busiest, catering to over 11 million passengers last year, and both Edinburgh and Glasgow saw record passenger growth in November.

Meanwhile, Prestwick was purchased by the Scottish Government in 2013 for £1 and is reported to be costing the taxpayer £750,000 per month.