Cardiff Airport: Swiss carrier Helvetic stops Wales flights

Media caption,
Helvetic has pulled the plug on its Cardiff-Zurich route

Swiss carrier Helvetic is pulling out of Cardiff Airport, two years after the Welsh government spent £500,000 marketing Wales in Switzerland.

Helvetic started flying to Zurich from Cardiff in 2011, but had already dropped winter services after low demand and will not fly this summer.

The Welsh government, which plans to buy Cardiff Airport, would not comment.

The news comes as a report says the Welsh government should plan for an airport to replace Cardiff and Bristol.

A study for the Institute of Welsh Affairs by aviation consultants MSP Solutions believes the Welsh government should push ahead with buying Cardiff Airport from Spanish-owned Abertis group but has suggested a new Severnside facility to replace both airports.

It says "a state of the art, 24-hour Severnside passenger and cargo airport that would serve the whole of south west Britain" is needed.

The proposal will be submitted to the UK government's Airports Commission, which is examining airport capacity in London, while taking "account of the national, regional and local implications of any proposals".

The report says further airport provision in London could mean "a serious worsening of air connectivity for Wales and the West of England".

'10-11 million passengers'

It refers to a possible development on the east side of London which "will entail a significant loss of economic competitiveness for both regions", unless "a new level of air service provision can be created for south Wales and the west".

Report authors believe an airport could be built on the edge of the Severn estuary between Newport and Chepstow, and "would have 10-11 million passengers a year from the start" if Cardiff and Bristol airports were closed.

The report concludes: "There is no single existing airport site that can conveniently meet the medium and long term development needs of Wales or south west England.

"We also believe that Wales has too small a population to base its long-term aviation needs on solo development.

"Wales and the south west of England need to work together closely to develop a joint approach towards aviation that will result in a major new airport facility for the whole of south west Britain."

John Borkowski, a former head of strategy at British Airways, prepared the report.

Speaking on BBC Radio Wales, he said: "It's very sad to see services leaving the airport, but over time that could change.

"I think the problem is that Bristol Airport nearby is heavily competitive and it's not an easy situation for Cardiff to compete."

About plans for a new airport on the edge of the Severn Estuary, he added: "I think we're talking about a project that's going to take at least 10 years and possibly more to build, so in the medium term what we want to do is to get as much traffic as possible to continue to use Bristol Airport and to also use Cardiff Airport.

"But in the long run both airports are limited in sites either by location or by physical size.

"What we're talking about is building an airport the size of Gatwick or Manchester, eventually with two runways, capable of 24-hour operation which would completely transform air travel prospects, not just for Wales, but for south-west England, the Midlands and also for the Thames Valley."

But is the scheme more likely to happen if the airport is in the hands of the Welsh government?

"I think that could be helpful," said Mr Borkowski.

"In the end it's a decision for the Welsh government whether they are supportive of the idea we've put forward or not.

Potential purchase

"I can't see why they shouldn't in the long run support it because we're not in any way being antagonistic towards Cardiff Airport."

The Welsh government's potential purchase deal of Cardiff Airport was announced last year following a slump in passenger numbers from a peak of two million in 2007 to just over a million in 2012.

It is understood to be close to completion but Helvetic's withdrawal will come as a blow.

Helvetic started flying direct services to Zurich from Cardiff Airport in March 2011 but nine months later it started calling at Bristol en route to Zurich because there were not enough Welsh passengers.

Media caption,
A Swiss airline has dropped its route from Cardiff to Zurich

It then stopped winter services to Cardiff, and just flew from Bristol. Now, it has confirmed it will not fly from Cardiff in the summer, while Bristol remains.

The company said it was discussing with Cardiff Airport whether operations should restart in 2014.

A Welsh government spokeswoman said it would not be "appropriate" to comment on Helvetic "while the proposed purchase of Cardiff Airport is subject to due diligence work".

John Strickland, director of air transport consultancy JLS Consulting, said: "It's always challenging for new air services to get established and a lot of marketing is required but in difficult economic times many of these routes rely on seasonal summer traffic.

"In an ideal world you would not have two airports competing - they are so close. There is sensitivity politically and maybe nationally in people's minds about which airport they use.

Extra flights

"Bristol's, if you like, got in there quicker and has been established for much longer and the stronger players have been in there for quite a number of years."

The Conservatives' assembly leader Andrew RT Davies said Helvetic's decision was "a wake-up call for a Welsh government who are hell-bent on using taxpayer money to fund the purchase of the airport, without presenting a convincing case for how they will make the acquisition work for the Welsh public".

Liberal Democrat AM Eluned Parrott said: "This announcement just goes to show the size of the task that the Welsh Labour government faces in turning the airport's fortunes around."

But there is some good news for Cardiff airport as Spanish airline Vueling says it is to increase services to Malaga and Alicante from Cardiff after a "positive response from Welsh travellers".

It will add one extra flight to Malaga on a Wednesday throughout August and September.

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