In the space of a week we saw Royal Mail sold for 1.7 billion pounds and our local airport for £1.
Even with the £350,000 that buyers Lothian Shelf say represents the effective cost of the purchase, this plot of land large enough to land a Concorde has gone for little more than the average cost of a house in this country.
Why so little? Because Manston has simply been unable to take off financially despite attempts by successive owners, giving the asset a bad reputation.
Just a few years ago, the airport had its biggest revival since the testing of the Dambusters bouncing bomb as EUJet came up with ambitious plans for routes all over Europe. With flights on sale for £1, the business inevitably ran out of fuel and folded, wrecking thousands of booked holidays.
A second chance arrived with Infratil, the New Zealand-based infrastructure investor. Infratil attracted KLM and some cargo planes, but the business still wasn’t viable.
Now comes Lothian Shelf, owned by Stagecoach buses co-founder Ann Gloag. This company certainly knows a thing or two about running successful transport operations and so a lot of hope rides on its plans. What’s clear is the need for a bold new strategy for the airport.
Looking at the numbers needed to make the airport work, one blogger estimated it would take 50-100 flights a day to make any money at all. This is based on back-of-the-envelope calculations that the 150 staff might cost an average £10,000 each per year, giving a wage bill of £1.5 million. Add in payments for maintenance, power, business rates and insurance and the total annual cost is no less than £5 million. Each landing might earn the airport a couple of hundred pounds, according to the blogger, meaning 10 departures a day, or 3,650 a year might bring in only £1 million a year.
Oliver Clark, a senior journalist at Flight magazine, said he expects the new owners will find it “very challenging to generate a good return on their investment” and questioned whether previously announced plans for expansion will remain in place.
“What is also not clear at this point is whether the new owners will support Manston airport’s 40-year vision to modernise and expand its runway and terminal to cater for up to 20 million passengers per year,” Clark wrote.
For now Gloag is keeping everyone guessing on the company’s strategy.
Gloag said she believes there’s real potential for growth that hasn’t been fully captured. “Having worked in the transport industry for over 30 years, I believe I am very well placed to help maximise opportunities for both freight and passengers at Manston, ” Gloag said.
It’s the freight aspect that could be the more significant revenue driver. Manston this month signed up Saudi Airlines to operate a twice-weekly cargo route from the airport.
Between 2015 and 2025, Manston said it could be handling five million passengers a year and 400,000 tonnes of freight.
For the individual passenger numbers to grow, MP Roger Gale says a fast rail connection between London and Manston is vital.
“The airport will never really succeed until we have a one-hour link from London to Manston,” Gale said after the sale. “That is achievable and on track.”
It also needs to rethink the reliance on Amsterdam as a hub. While you can travel just about anywhere in the world from Manston, passengers need to change flights at Amsterdam. That makes a direct flight from Gatwick, Southend or Stansted a no-brainer for a lot of holidaymakers.
We await Gloag’s itinerary with bated breath.
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