A year ago today Blackpool Airport faced its darkest hour as owners Balfour Beatty pulled the plug on an operation it said was costing it £1.5m in losses every year.
Holiday flights company Jet2 moved its operations out and around 100 people lost their jobs as the airport closed.
Now, 12 months on, community leaders say turning vast tracts of the Squires Gate site into an enterprise zone could be the only hope for a return of large-scale commercial flights – and to secure the long-term future of the airport.
They say there is now light on the horizon, but the price of creating the zone flagged up by the Government last March, but yet to be given the final go-ahead, could be the loss of the now-mothballed international terminal.
Owner Balfour Beatty failed to respond to our questions and will not be drawn on its plans for the site.
The campaign group Save Blackpool Airport, which is fighting to retain airside operations at Squires Gate, has today voiced concerns over the future of the terminal building.
We have been told a new terminal will be built closer to the runway
At its peak the terminal saw 558,278 passengers pass through its doors bound for sunshine holidays in Spain, the Balearics, Canary Islands. But now The Gazette understands it could be the site of a new energy college as one of the cornerstones of an enterprise zone. The building and its ageing baggage handling area has remained out of use even when the airport resumed commercial flights with Citywing, which instead uses the former administration offices as a makeshift departures and arrivals lounge.
Most of the terminal’s equipment was auctioned off in July by Balfour Beatty to help raise funds to pay off the £34m debts it had run up at the airport.
In March last year, Blackpool was earmarked to become an enterprise zone, with a focus on the energy sector, which would allow it to offer tax incentives, simplified planning and super fast broadband to companies relocating to the area.
The terminal lies within the footprint of the zone and the group says it could therefore be converted into an energy studies college with a new terminal built closer to the runway.
Save Blackpool Airport’s chairman Rob Blower said this would be pivotal for the airport’s future.
He said: “The enterprise zone could be good news for the airport but we would like to see potential for having international commercial flights to return.
“I don’t think that is likely with the present owners Balfour Beatty, but if the terminal building is converted into an engineering college then we will have to watch closely the plans for its replacement.
“That should give us a clear idea of the ambition of the owners for the future of aviation at the airport.
“The current terminal which closed last October had capability to handle even more international flights than it did so the new terminal, even if it is smaller, could still allow the return of commercial flights.
“We have been led to believe that the terminal is not going to be used as such again, but have also been told that a new one is going to be built closer to the runway if the enterprise zone comes together.”
He said it might then be possible to start new flights to such places as Amsterdam which are popular with the business community and which could underpin other destinations. But he warned there was only a limited number of airlines which might consider bringing flights to Blackpool.
“There are not enough people living within one hour of Blackpool Airport to sustain commercial aviation, it needs business demand as well.”
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said if the terminal building was converted into an energy college then a new terminal should be built.
He said: “I have spoken to the owners and they have said that an enterprise zone would create greater opportunity to bring more skilled jobs to the area. What we want in Blackpool is skilled jobs and the retention of aviation facilities.
“There has to be long term sustainable jobs that contribute to overall strategy and which does not detract from an airport.
“There needs to be proper terminal facilities at the airport. Even under the current arrangements, we should not have passengers having to grope their way around to find the plane. The facilities need to be spruced up.”
He said that exploiting the energy sector expertise in the Fylde area should be part of the overall strategy.
He added: “The important Bond Helicopter operation is working well and the development of offshore wind and energy in the Liverpool Bay area is an opportunity for further commercial opportunities to be brought in. That would also benefit the overall health of the airport and help sustain other aviation on site.”
Fylde MP Mark Menzies said: “While I was as disappointed as anyone to see the airport close, I have made it clear to Balfour Beatty that I wish to see commercial flights running again as soon as possible. I supported the recent bid to make the site an enterprise zone, to ensure it could be placed on a more stable financial footing, so overseas services could resume.”
Mr Blower, from Save Blackpool Airport, said despite the enterprise zone plans the group would still be campaigning for a return to flights similar to the Jet2 operation, which ended on October 9 last year, to cater for thousands of holidaymakers from the Lancashire and Cumbria areas . He said they were angry at the lack of progress and lack of communication from airport owners Balfour Beatty.
He said: “It is very disappointing that nothing significant has happened on the aviation side at the airport. The enterprise zone announcement is a good thing I suppose but we are yet to see anything further.
“We didn’t realise just how little influence the council had over the airport. When it was sold in 2004 to the Mar Group the council should have retained more rights and when it was sold to Balfour Beatty in 2008 they should have retained more say.
“The airport could be used a lot more than it has been. It should have been possible to at least get more flights within the country, to London or Glasgow for example. That would be a good start but there seems to have been a lack of ambition.”
But Rob Green, of the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company, said an enterprise zone would have a bigger impact on the area’s economy than a simple return of holiday flights. He said: “It was a big blow but Jet2 took people out of the area and did not bring holidaymakers in. The current flights by Citywing from the Isle of Man and Ireland bring people to the area which helps the economy.
“As it stands the airport is continuing to be invested in – it’s a case of steady as she goes. The zone would underpin the long-term survival and secure the infrastructure for further development.
“The business plan has been submitted and it would go live on April 1 , 2016. There is activity going on already.
“It has been a good year in that we have not lost the airport. It is still there and is a basis for build for the future. It is a case of onwards and upwards.”
‘This is the best opportunity to attract new interest in terms of aviation’
Blackpool North MP Paul Maynard said that making Blackpool Airport into an enterprise zone would be the best way of bringing about the return of international flights.
He said that having new businesses based in the zone whose status meant Blackpool could offer financial and infrastructure incentives for firm to relocate there, would improve demand for flights.
He said: “The enterprise zone is 99.9 per cent on the way, I had hoped it would be announced in the last budget but hopefully the confirmation will be coming soon. I have no concerns on that score.
“I understand the frustration of many people who want to see the aviation restored to its former glory with more aeroplanes and more flights coming and people are frustrated that the only commercial flights are the Citywing flights to the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland.
“I know individuals working on the airport are highly experienced doing all they can to attract new business but it remains the case that other neighbouring airports are better able to attract aeroplanes because the costs per passenger is lower there. If for example Liverpool neared capacity then the costs would rise and things might change.
“But the most important thing is to me is that they have maintained the aviation infrastructure. I know people were upset that some equipment has been sold off but it has been out of date equipment.
“Clearly the enterprise zone will want to make the best use of the available land and we will be looking to see how that supports and buttresses the aviation activities.
“It is the best opportunity to attract new interest in terms of aviation.
“It would also diversify businesses and provide a justification for a range of new destinations.”
‘Enterprise zone could secure a future for airport and create jobs’
The man tasked with co-ordinating the enterprise zone’s development along side the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership when it gets the final go-ahead, Rob Green from the Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company, said it would provide a secure future for the airport and a centre of jobs and expertise for the area.
The LEP said it would be complementary to the zone based around the BAE Systems sites at Warton and Samlesbury and had the potential to bring 3,000 jobs to Blackpool.
He said among the possibilities would be the creation of a new road access to the existing industrial estate and a conversion of the existing terminal building into an energy college – although he said the details would be down to the airport landowner, Balfour Beatty.
He added: “That would be one of the things to be looked at in the master plan. The existing terminal is no longer used and isn’t really fit for purpose for the scale of operations.
“Balfour Beatty is continuing to invest appropriately in the airport, people have to understand they were not overrun with air operators queuing to come to Blackpool.
“The enterprise zone could be a driver to allow the exploitation of specialist aviation uses for the site. With an energy sector developing we could see businesses moving high value personnel and engineers around.
“With flights on that basis there would be more opportunities for charter companies to come to Blackpool.
“A lot of companies are interested in locating close to an airport for various reasons. There is the potential to make use of it.”
He said although it was a blow when the holiday flights ended last October, they did not have a huge impact on the economy apart from the loss of jobs associated with the Jet2 operation and the terminal.
“Jet 2 took people out of the area and did not bring holidaymakers in. The current flights by Citywing from the Isle of Man and Ireland bring people to the area which helps the economy.”
He said if the enterprise zone gets the green light as expected, then it would go live on April 1 next year but it would be a long term process running until 2037 and things were unlikely to change overnight.