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Wednesday 19 August 2009

How Tired is your Pilot? – 5

August 2009, and Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary is at Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA) to announce that the location will become the carrier’s 34th base in early 2010. Two aircraft will be based there, and many jobs will be created. The airport’s management might have been pleased, well, until the following week brought the sudden withdrawal of Ryanair from Manchester.

LBA, originally named Yeadon after the nearest town, was originally an RAF base, but they didn’t want to keep it, so it became a civil airport. The highest airport in England, it suffers with weather events, and its main runway cannot be extended any further, due to nearby hills. The prospect of linking to the motorway network is remote, and a rail link is out of the question. Punters who live south of a line drawn between the city centres of Leeds and Bradford are more conveniently served by Manchester Airport, which is linked to both motorway and rail networks.

LBA was relatively late getting its main runway lengthened sufficiently to accommodate most modern jet airliners, so much of the charter traffic went to Manchester. Scheduled services to London were hit badly by the coming of the 125 mph railway to Leeds and York. Other nearby airports, like Humberside, offer a regular KLM shuttle to Schiphol, which opens up a huge range of connections. And then the RAF pulled out of Finningley.

Finningley, situated to the east of Doncaster, has a long runway – so the largest and longest haul jets can come and go – and is close to the M18 motorway. A rail station could be reopened relatively inexpensively, and combined with a shuttle bus, would give the kind of service enjoyed by Luton Airport. Now renamed Robin Hood Airport, it is owned by Peel Holdings, who also own Liverpool Airport. Had this been an option in the early 60s, LBA would probably never have developed beyond an air taxi and flying club airfield.

So the bringing of Ryanair to LBA may not be a show of strength, but of weakness and even desperation. So much traffic – particularly charters – has gravitated to Manchester over the years, that any significant expansion at Finningley could draw LBA’s own charter flights away and leave very little residual activity. And when Ryanair come back later to ask for more – as they inevitably do – the management at LBA will have little choice. After all, having Ryanair expand at LBA will mean players like Jet2 getting squeezed and moving flights elsewhere.

It looks as if someone has bet the house – with potentially fatal results.

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