Carlisle Airport to reopen to commercial services – can it now attract and sustain the routes it needs?

Carlisle Lake District Airport in Cumbria will resume commercial passenger services in Jun-2018, the first time since 1993, when it was under the ownership of the local council. Now it is under the stewardship, since 2009, of the Stobart Group, which is best known for the Eddie Stobart road haulage and logistics brand, and which is headquartered in Carlisle. The Stobart Aviation division, which also owns Stobart Air (ex Aer Arann), leases Carlisle Airport on a 150-year deal to 2151 and also bought outright London Southend Airport, which is its biggest aviation-related enterprise.

Stobart first entered the sector because of the consistently increasing costs of road transport but having invested at Carlisle, fundamentally a GBP12 million 400,000 sq ft distribution centre, and having planned the resumption of commercial air services since 2014, the airport must justify routes that are reported to include London Southend (naturally), Dublin and Belfast airports. The Local Enterprise Partnership will also invest a much-needed GBP4.95 million to improve the airport’s runway and terminal.

The airport has one big factor in its favour but there is also a sizeable negative. As its name suggests the airport is located just to the north of the Lake District, an area of particular scenic beauty and possibly the most attractive vacation area in the UK. The 885 sq m (2,292 sq km) area has recently been awarded World Heritage status (i.e. all of it) by UNESCO, placing it alongside the likes of the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal.

MAP – Cumbria came into existence in 1974 and is predominantly a rural setting containing the Lake District and Lake District National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered one of England’s most outstanding areas of natural beautySource: Google Maps

The Lake District attracts many tourists both from the UK and abroad with around 20 million visitors each year. It is especially attractive to the Japanese and Chinese for various regions. Moreover, tourism is the main employer; those tourists spend close to GBP3 billion each year.

But the industry is concentrated towards the south of the region, which is equally accessible from Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds-Bradford airports, by motorway, or directly by rail from Manchester. Newcastle Airport is closer still and as Carlisle is situated within a few miles of Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are not far away either.

The real problem facing the airport is whether or not there is an adequate population to justify the flights. The county of Cumbria as a whole is one of the most sparsely populated counties in the UK, with 74 people per sq km and a total population of less than 500,000. Carlisle itself counts just over 100,000 and the only other urbanised area, the industrial Barrow-in-Furness, is as close to Manchester in journey time following improvements to the A590 highway. Surrounding areas have more than adequate air transport provision of their own so there is no wider catchment area.

A comparison could be made with Plymouth Airport, in a similarly sparsely populated region of southwest England, which closed down in 2011 and which had difficulty attracting passengers despite the absence of a fast rail link to London or just about anywhere else.

The selected routes seem reasonable. Stobart Air is believed to be the airline that will operate them. It will almost certainly operate to London Southend. A London route is critical for the local economy (which will not directly benefit from the HS2 high-speed rail line, which will stop well short of the Lake District) but on the other hand Southend does not offer the hub potential that a Heathrow service would offer, or even connections from the likes of Gatwick, Stansted, Luton or even City airports.

Belfast could be a popular route across a wide area, the alternative is a sea crossing that is short but can be rough. The Dublin route affords the opportunity for westbound air connections to North America through the customs and border pre-inspection facilities there, and vice versa for North American visitors to the Lake District.

There is no eastbound link yet, however. Amsterdam has often been mooted over the years for obvious reasons but KLM flies into some of the surrounding airports while spurning the likes of Liverpool and Leeds-Bradford airports (over five and 3.5 million passengers per annum respectively). To operate into a small airport like Carlisle, KLM would need a solid commercial reason as it does at Durham Tees Valley where in the immediate vicinity there is a conglomeration of heavy industry, extensively under Dutch ownership.

Even in the worst case scenario though, there is a market for freight out of Carlisle, generated by the parent company of the airport lessee. The parcels business between the north of England/southern Scotland and London and the southeast of England alone would probably fill a daily flight between Carlisle and Southend.

It was just down the railway line at Carnforth station where the ‘Brief Encounter’ of the famous 1945 film, considered to be “the most romantic of all time” took place. But, the Stobart management will be hoping for something rather more substantial arising from their lengthy commitment to and investment in, Carlisle Airport rather than a failed love affair.