Exeter airport - how important is this for North Devon?

North Devon Gazette

Exeter Airport is a key part of the South West infrastructure. It provides a critical connection throughout the UK but also to many international destinations. Â

The owners of the Airport have worked for the last 10 years on a comprehensive development plan to build passenger numbers and attract operators to open up new routes. A central part of this business plan was the continued operation of Flybe.  Â

Flybe were not only headquartered in Exeter but also undertook a series of related business initiatives. Most importantly, this included the engineering works, which provided aircraft maintenance, not only for Flybe themselves but for many other airlines.  Â

This highly specialist facility employed approximately 900 skilled workers in the Exeter area and provided a key opportunity for many smaller businesses and subcontractors as part of their supply chain.  lybe also invested heavily in skills and training. As part of this, they developed the Flybe Training Academy, which is situated close to the airport. Flybe became the largest regional carrier in the UK. It was a body blow for the region when this business closed. The economic shock and the effect on real people’s lives were huge. Â

All this happened pre-Covid. Much of the Flybe empire has now been broken up. Some of this has been helpful to the South West, for example, the Flybe Academy is now operated by Exeter College and provides yet another critically important opportunity for our next generation to develop market-relevant skills.Â

The impact of Flybe’s closure was quickly followed by the pandemic. The lockdowns which proceeded this had a profound effect on travelling to and from Exeter. Prior to Flybe’s failure, passenger numbers had just peaked over 1 million per year. The bottom then quite literally fell out of the market with an estimated reduction in numbers of 90%. Â

Recovery has proved to be frustratingly slow. The majority of regional airports around the country have had similar experiences. Exeter, however, has experienced one of the slowest recovery patterns.Â

An additional constraint for the airport has arisen as a result of environmental concerns relating to air travel. In reality, aviation is only responsible for about 3% of harmful carbon emissions – a tiny fraction by comparison with road transport. Â

This has, however, created a sentiment which is more negative towards airport growth than ever previously experienced. To some extent, this debate is missing the point. It is not airports that are emitters, it is the fuel systems used by aircrafts that cause the problems. Â

In this respect, technology is starting to find some answers, which will reduce emissions. Hydrogen fuel, for example, is now being actively trialled by Air Bus. Aviation fuels are also now using a percentage of biofuels within the mix. Exeter Airport is at the forefront of this thinking and recently hosted the first trial flight of an electric plane, operated by Ampaire (this is one of the most advanced technology companies on the planet). This initiative could result in a clean all electric future for flying.Â

Why is this important to Northern Devon and what can be done to assist recovery?Â

Northern Devon needs access to a viable and comprehensive airport. This is a key element for the business community. Many investors or remote business owners will make further investment decisions dependent upon ease of access. There is also a huge market for hospitality and leisure. We should also not forget the social and community benefits that can arise from a comprehensive regional network. Â

The airport owners are currently embarking upon a major initiative to regain lost capacity. This includes advanced negotiations regarding flights to Manchester. Â

The latest proposal is for a regular scheduled flight to Dublin. The importance of this is that it will facilitate seamless access to the US. This has huge potential to boost overseas trading.Â

The service is being launched by Aer Lingus in April with flights from Exeter to New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington and Toronto, via its Dublin hub. It means passengers can board a flight in Exeter at 09.15 and be in New York in time for dinner the same day.Â

Exeter departures are timed to connect seamlessly with transatlantic flights from Dublin and include through-ticketing, baggage transfer and pre-clearance of all US immigration and customs inspections at Dublin Airport, prior to departure. Dublin Airport is one of only a few airports outside North America that offers a US pre-clearance facility. The benefit is that passengers arriving in the US are treated as domestic arrivals, allowing them to avoid immigration queues and pick up their bags and go.Â

The proximity of Exeter to all of the businesses of Northern Devon is currently being made that bit easier by the upgrade to the North Devon Link Road. This is a real chance to give our local businesses a competitive edge nationally and internationally. Support, therefore, is critical to future success. I commend to you all the need to enthusiastically support this.Â