MINISTERS attempted to persuade China to launch direct flights to Prestwick, Alex Salmond has revealed.
The former First Minister said he had tried to woo a Chinese airline to set up a hub at the Scottish Government-owned airport.
‘Prestwick holds advantages to establishment of such a hub’
The ambitious plan would have involved connecting flights for arriving Chinese visitors, including using private jets.
Salmond has been seeking a direct link since visiting China four years ago, but the plan to bring it to Prestwick has not been revealed before.
News of the scheme comes as the loss-making Ayrshire airport struggles to attract new airlines. Ryanair, its sole passenger carrier, announced in April that it will further cut its winter routes from Prestwick from seven to six.
The Scottish Government, which bought the airport for £1 in 2013 to avert its closure, will have to provide loans of up to £40 million to keep it open.
Salmond, writing in his referendum diary The Dream Shall Never Die, said he met a delegation from the Chinese airline Hainan last July.
He wrote: “For some time we’ve been trying to interest the Chinese in viewing Prestwick Airport as a potential hub. It has long runways, lots of air space, plenty of ground space, a strategic location and is ideal for private jets.”
Salmond had said during his 2011 visit to Beijing: “The Scottish Government is determined to improve our international air connections to help boost trade and tourism with key global markets such as China.”
The Prestwick move was described as “potentially very interesting and encouraging” by Labour transport spokesman David Stewart.
He said: “Prestwick Airport holds a number of advantages that would lend itself to the establishment of such a hub.
“It has the longest commercial runway and parallel taxiway in Scotland and also a second runway of 1,829m, meaning all types of aircraft can be accommodated.”
Ayr Conservative MSP John Scott, who represents the airport, said: “I would be pleased if a well-capitalised company or individual, Chinese or not, were to buy, develop and further diversify Prestwick Airport, always provided strategic military considerations could be satisfied.”
However, aviation experts were sceptical. John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said: “I don’t see this as a likely reality, either from a political or a commercial perspective.
“The type of global markets which Chinese carriers would wish to serve can largely be operated non-stop from China with the latest aircraft.
“Aside from this would be the question of market and customer acceptance, even if traffic rights were granted.”
Laurie Price, former director of aviation strategy for consultants Mott MacDonald, said Prestwick should focus instead on restoring axed routes, such as to London. He dismissed the airport’s prospects of becoming a hub for interconnecting flights, like Dubai, and said its days as a “way point” staging post were in the past.
The Scottish Government also downplayed Prestwick winning any China link.
Its spokesman said: “Prestwick Airport provides opportunities for the development of specialist aviation businesses, and the airport is exploring various options to ensure it becomes a success.
“Separately, we are also working towards securing a direct air service between Scotland and China, where the airline would choose which Scottish airport to fly to.”
A Hainan Airlines spokesman said: “We don’t have any plan for direct flights to Scotland.”