Cardiff Airport: Lee Waters ‘not concerned’ about airport's loss in value

Lee Waters suggested Cardiff Airport should be treated more as a public service asset as opposed to a commercial enterprise. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

The Welsh government’s deputy climate change minister has told ITV Cymru Wales he is “not concerned” about the value of Cardiff Airport despite it falling in value by £37 million since the government bought it.

The airport was sold to the government for £52 million in 2013, but was valued at just £15 million in 2021.

Lee Waters was speaking to ITV’s Wales This Week programme marking ten years since the Welsh Government bought the airport.

Asked whether he was worried the airport was failing, Mr Waters said: “I’m not concerned about the value the accountants put on the airport.

“It’s sitting on a large amount of land, it’s got a huge asset base, British Airways maintenance centre there which is a huge asset for south East Wales.”

Lee Waters in the Welsh Government's duputy minister for climate change, which includes responsibility for transport.

Opposition parties in the Senedd have criticised the government’s record since purchasing the airport.

When asked whether Cardiff Airport remained a commercial venture with the goal of making a profit, Mr Waters said: ”There’s a real challenge for regional airports.

“There’s a UK (wide) decision here of - do we want London to be the hub for all our aircraft or do you think it should be spread around?

“If that’s the case you need a hub for other airports because these are not profit making they’re essentially public transport. 

“We don't ask ‘is Cardiff Central train station profit making?’ and a similar argument can be made for an airport.”

This differs to what the Welsh Government said in 2013 when the airport was bought from Barcelona-based company Abertis.

At the time, then-first minister Carwyn Jones described the purchase as a "good example of value for money", while insisting the airport would be expected to demonstrate a return for the taxpayer.

In the decade since the airport’s purchase, the Welsh Government has spent more than £225 million, including the initial fee, loans and grants. 

The airport, which was originally built as an airfield during the Second World War, has been hit by a number of airline withdrawals in recent years. 

In 2019, Flybe confirmed it would no longer have a permanent operational base at the airport.

In January, Wizz Air announced it will shut down its base at the airport. 

Qatar Airways, which announced a new service from Cardiff in 2018 has also so far failed to return following the Covid pandemic.

Cardiff University passenger numbers at a glance

Asked whether the airport’s current performance is a good enough return for the taxpayer, Mr Waters said: “The fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is, do we think Wales should have an airport? 

“If we do think that then we have to confront the fact that the private sector doesn't want to run it . 

“Airports around the world are loss making. Its a very odd business had we not (bought it), it would have closed and Wales would not have an airport.

“We think for the sake of the economy and the people travelling should have an airport in Wales and if that's the case the government needs to support it.”

Qatar Airways has not yet confirmed when, or if, it will return to Cardiff Airport. Credit: PA

Natasha Asghar, the Welsh Conservative Party’s shadow transport minister, said: “It is clear that buying the airport has been a mistake and we wouldn’t have bought it.

“Governments should be focused on delivering public services, not running airports.

“Public ownership is not the right path for Cardiff Airport and the Labour Government needs to deliver their plan, like we have, to show how the airport can be in a place to return back to private ownership.”

Plaid Cymru spokesperson for transport, Delyth Jewell MS said: “Any discussion about the expansion of air travel must be viewed in the context of the climate and nature emergencies. 

“It’s important that a viable international airport remains a part of the overall transportation infrastructure of Wales.

“It’s also important that this remains in public hands, so it is disappointing that the Welsh Government has not been able to recover the position of Cardiff Airport since the pandemic.

“My fear is that this may be a wider symptom of the Welsh Government’s managed decline of the public transport system - seen most readily, in this context, in people not being able to get to the airport via bus or train easily. 

“In the meantime, the Welsh Government should look to Cardiff Airport’s share of existing airfreight business, and press for Air Passenger Duty to be devolved to Wales, to allow us to compete with airports over the border.”

Wales This Week: Up in the Air? airs on Tuesday, March 23 at 8:30pm on ITV Cymru Wales.