It’s a huge elephant in the room for the economic prosperity of both the Welsh Government and Wales – but what does the future hold for Wales’ only international airport after steady passenger numbers and, in the latest blow, a departing budget airline?
Cardiff Airport’s numbers are grim. In 2021 the airport had a paltry 123,000 passengers arriving through its terminals. This pales in comparison to its nearest competitor Bristol, with passenger numbers recovering much more quickly to over two million in the same year.
On top of that, Cardiff Airport’s value has plummeted despite the Welsh Labor government, which owns the airport, plowing hundreds of millions of pounds into the site – more than £200m by some estimates.
Cardiff Airport was bought by the government for just over £50m in 2013. Since then, its value has plummeted, with some estimates putting it at just £15m.
And it gets worse, with budget airline Wizz Air recently leaving the airport, and a former BMI executive saying it was built in the wrong place.
Despite all this, one thing remains – Wales needs an international airport to have a strong economy and appeal to outside investors.
Doncaster Sheffield Airport recently ceased operations after it was deemed financially unviable by owner Peel Group – the last flight to land was on November 4, 2022, and more worryingly, the airport is closing with passenger numbers similar to what Cardiff saw before the pandemic.
But Professor Stuart Cole, an expert on transport, policy and economics at the University of South Wales, believes that a complete scrapping of Cardiff Airport is premature.
Professor Cole says Cardiff should be viable, but it faces a huge problem, with its main competitor just 60 miles away.
Bristol Airport swallows passengers from South West England and South Wales, with many more carriers and destination options.
The number of passengers in Bristol far exceeds that of Cardiff – at its peak before the epidemic Bristol hit more than eight million passengers a year.
Professor Cole explains that Cardiff will find it very difficult to compete.
“Cardiff lost its competitive edge 20 years ago when they lost easyJet and Ryanair,” Professor Cole explained.
“At that time Cardiff was not able to meet the conditions set by the airlines and Bristol was able to meet them, and returning these airlines is almost impossible.”
Low budget airlines are the key to getting a foot in through the revolving doors as low cost flights are the dominant product in the airline market.
However, Professor Cole has a lot of sympathy for Cardiff Airport, saying management has worked hard to convince international companies such as Qatar Airways to fly from the airport.
“The decision to bring an airline to an airport is a decision of the airline and not of the airport,” Professor Cole said.
“The area around Bristol is much richer than south east Wales. That is one of the truths of the situation.
“You have the home counties on your doorstep like Gloucester and Somerset which are much wealthier populations that can afford to make several flights a year.
“Getting more operators is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If you have more operators then more operators will come because they see the destination as attractive. It’s one of those vicious circles and it’s hard for Cardiff to get new operators and get them to stay.”
With the departure of Wizz Air, which ceased operations in January, Professor Cole said the airline must have thought Cardiff Airport was the one it could drop with the least impact on its business – which does not bode well for Cardiff.
(a quiet airport in Cardiff struggling to recover from the epidemic)
But, despite what would appear to be insurmountable challenges facing the airport, Professor Cole says one thing that is also true of Cardiff is that it needs to survive.
“Cardiff Airport is not going to stop,” Professor Cole said.
“The Welsh Government will continue to invest money in this because if you are a country trying to attract inward investment and you don’t have an airport then you have a problem in terms of perception.
“Of the four criteria for investing in economies, one of them is always transportation facilities in the country in question.”
Quiet check-in at Cardiff Airport
A large British Airways warehouse at the airport. Welsh Government is committed to the airport’s future
In a recent Senate hearing, Mark Drakeford insisted the Welsh Government was behind Cardiff Airport and put forward a recovery package that was “entirely designed to make Cardiff Airport profitable for the future” – against the wishes of the Conservatives. To see Cardiff Airport back in private hands.
Speaking in the Senate, the First Minister said: “I have always believed that a regional airport is an essential part of the economic infrastructure of any part of the United Kingdom that seeks to support the modern conditions in which the economy must operate.
“The private sector would not have been able to do this. It was right that the public purse stepped in. It is an investment in the future of the Welsh economy, and one that this government would be happy to make.”
A Welsh Government spokesman backed Drakeford’s claims despite the recent trouble at the airport.
“We are of course disappointed that Wizz Air has decided to withdraw from Cardiff Airport,” the spokesman said.
“It is clear that the current economic climate is incredibly difficult for the aviation sector, but smaller airports are vital to regional economies across the UK and we are calling on the UK Government to provide the support to put them on a future-proof footing.”
This unwavering commitment comes despite former BMI Baby director David Brion, who was one of the key figures in bringing BMI to Cardiff, telling the BBC Cardiff Airport is in the wrong place.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Brion said: “Cardiff Airport is not an attractive proposition as an airport for an investor. There is simply no volume. [of passengers].
“Not only is Cardiff Airport on the coast, which limits its catchment, it’s on the wrong side of Cardiff.”
Mr Briron believes that to make an airport viable it will need to reach the four million plus mark in terms of passengers. Cardiff has never approached this amount, and in recent years has reached a pre-epidemic at just over two million.
Comments from our readers:
Nikki and Ernie: “The Welsh Government told us all when they took it over years ago how they were going to make it sustainable and offer more destinations for everyone to use, at more competitive prices. Well, that never happened. It annoys me because I live 10 minutes max from Cardiff Airport, but in the end Of course I use Bristol, Exeter even Birmingham which are much cheaper for the same holiday. As soon as the airport attracts a new airline, they leave because of the high taxes that are charged. Kudos to the Welsh Government. Another disappointment on their part.”
Maria Arapovich: “I regret flying from Bristol when we have a local airport, but the routes have not always been suitable and the extra airport taxes. I am flying from Cardiff this year for the first time in years, because although the holiday is more expensive than Bristol, but taking into account the cost of fuel, accommodation, as it is Early flight and travel time, we decided to travel from Cardiff so I can’t wait to use our local airport. I just wish they could get more airlines in there.”
Mike Hewell: “If the Welsh government is not going to stand up and do something about the development and promotion of the airport why don’t they sell it to a private company that will develop just as Southend sold to Stobarts and they developed an outstanding passenger and cargo facility. Wales needs an international airport. This is another Drifford drain on the country! “
A lone jumbo plane at the airport
Despite Mr Byron’s words, Professor Cole circled back to the basic fact that to be taken seriously it needs an airport, and at the end of the day Cardiff is where it is and nothing is going to change that.
“The government put money into Cardiff and the airport educated itself,” Professor Cole said.
“There are still improvements to be made. Getting to the airport is fine but getting back is a walk from the arrival area to the bus station. It’s not an attractive proposition for potential suppliers.
“But Cardiff must continue to do what it is doing A as a criterion for international investment and B as a service for those who don’t want to travel to Bristol.”
What do you think of Cardiff Airport? Do you use it, or go to Bristol? Are you happy with the taxpayers money being plowed into the airport or do you want to see it in private hands? What have been your past experiences with the airport? Tell us in the comments or on our Facebook.