THE Scottish Government was under pressure last night to clarify its plans for the future of Prestwick airport after its only commercial carrier, Ryanair, transferred five flights to its new Glasgow airport base – reducing the number of passengers expected to pass through the facility next year by more than a third.
Opposition politicians called for ministers to confirm that Prestwick, which was taken into public ownership late last year when its former owner Infratil earmarked it for closure, remained commercially viable.
Ryanair said it would also launch new flights between Scotland’s two biggest cities and Stansted airport in London. A new route between Glasgow and Dublin will also be created.
Ryanair’s chief commercial officer, David O’Brien, insisted the carrier “remains committed” to the airport, where it has around 300 staff working from an engineering base. The number of passengers due to pass through the airport in the next year will drop from 800,000 to around 500,000.
“We are adding a new base at Glasgow International airport, so we will operate from three bases in Scotland,” he said. “This involves a reduction at Prestwick. We are in discussion with Prestwick’s new owners to see what potential exists there long term.”
The government has also pledged that Prestwick, which generates only half of its current income from passenger traffic, will remain in the “evolving and increasingly competitive Scottish aviation market”.
But others have warned that yesterday’s announcement has left Prestwick – which supports 1,400 local jobs and is said to be worth around £60 million to the Scottish economy – in a precarious position.
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume said: “Less than nine months after stating that they were committed to Prestwick, Ryanair’s decision to remove the majority of its routes away from the airport is upsetting news for all involved.”
He added: “With the majority of flights this winter now scrapped, the Scottish Government must explain how it plans to plug this gap.”
Scottish Labour’s transport spokesman Mark Griffin said: “More flights for Glasgow are welcome but the removal of the last remaining Ryanair passenger service to Dublin from Prestwick is deeply worrying. Prestwick is a major employer in Ayrshire and the local community depends hugely on associated income and they deserve to know as a matter of priority what is planned to ensure Prestwick returns to profitability.”
Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Alex Johnstone MSP said: “The future of Prestwick is essential, and we need urgent details from the Scottish Government about how it intends to return the airport to profitability and when it will find new owners to keep that trend going.”
Ryanair has been the only firm to operate passenger flights since central European budget carrier Wizz Air moved to Glasgow at the start of last year.
Experts said moving from smaller, remote airports to city hubs was part of Ryanair’s growth strategy. Oliver Sleath, an aviation analyst at Barclays, said: “I think we are going to find a number of smaller airports in Europe which are very reliant on Ryanair finding it hard to survive.”
But Ryanair’s Mr O’Brien insisted it would remain at Prestwick – although he warned that expansion would be “limited” if the controversial Air Passenger Duty (APD) tax – a key element of the SNP’s plans post-independence – was not scrapped. However, he denied that the transfer of flights away from Prestwick was aimed at pressuring the government over APD, which is currently the responsibility of Westminster.
“We didn’t go to the Scottish Government to deliver a ransom note. We’re exploring with them the potential that remains at Prestwick,” he said. “It has a lot more going for it than just passengers. I think we could add other routes [at Prestwick] if APD is scrapped.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Glasgow Prestwick is a non-typical airport, where success is not predicated on passenger traffic alone. There are opportunities to capitalise on its other assets and related businesses, such as freight, maintenance repair and overhaul, fixed-base operations and property.”
He added:“We are confident there is a place for Prestwick in the evolving and increasingly competitive Scottish aviation market.”
Prestwick airport will still offer seven Ryanair flights from November to winter sun destinations.
Laurie Price: ‘Prestwick needs to look at new ways of making money’
THIS is a further move by Ryanair to “normalise” – they have, in recent months, started becoming friendly, understanding customers’ needs much, much more, rather than focusing on just “price price price”.
The decision to transfer some flights from Prestwick to Glasgow is part of that strategy to use more main airports rather than only the ones which are further away. They are dipping their toe into the water of doing this and have seen an opportunity at Glasgow.
EasyJet is doing very well by focusing on the business market – a very different approach to what Ryanair has done in the past with its “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” business model. They are trying to get some of the higher yield traffic.
At the major airports, you will just not get the deals, as simple as that. Whereas we all know at some of the other airports, there have even been subsidies for the first year or so, to lure airlines in.
However, if Ryanair is to have success in this, they will have to operate in parallel with airports such as Prestwick where things are cheaper, so they will not be looking to move away completely – this will be temporary. They have a big service base there and they are committed to Prestwick.
Prestwick itself needs to look at other ways of making money – how to attract routes from other airlines – but also take advantage of the assets it does have, such as it being on the rail network. That is something Edinburgh or Glasgow does not have which allows it to connect to the rest of Scotland. If it does a deal with ScotRail, which is essentially underwritten by the Scottish Government, so that shouldn’t be too difficult – it could really make that work.
• Laurie Price is an aviation consultant