Cardiff Airport: What's next after a turbulent decade under Welsh Government ownership?

Qatar Airways paused daily flights to Doha during the pandemic but airport bosses hope to see the service resume next year. Credit: PA Images.

On 27 March in 2013, in an historic move, the Welsh Labour government stepped in and decided to purchase Cardiff Airport.

The First Minister at the time, Carwyn Jones, said it was "good value for money" and it would provide "some very exciting opportunities for international trade and tourism".

However, the last decade has been a turbulent one for Wales' only international airport.

Its main rival is expanding and Cardiff's passenger numbers are struggling.

The opposition has recently questioned the Welsh government on the hundreds of millions of pounds that has been spent on the airport.

The site in Rhoose was bought for £52 million, but now its current value is far less.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Cardiff saw 1.6 million passengers walk through its terminal, but that number fell in 2022 to 857,000, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

The airport was used by Welsh fans travelling to Qatar in 2022.

The airport is now in recovery mode and its boss has told ITV News, the aim is to get back to more than 50 direct destinations by around 2026.

However, that aim has not been helped by the decision of low cost airline Wizz Air, which stopped all of its flights to and from the airport, back in January.

The news came just a few months after the airline opened a base and employed local people.

It is not all doom and gloom as a new route to Paris was announced last week and it starts next month. Credit: PA Images.

Aside from flights, there is currently no direct bus that links Cardiff city centre to the site.

That is because the Welsh government-funded T9 bus service, which ran every 20 minutes, is currently suspended.

Ministers have faced pressure to bring it back, but they have argued passenger numbers are not high enough to justify funding the service.

Wizz Air pulled its base in January just a few months after they opened a base. Credit: PA Images.

The site currently has no low-cost carrier based there.

But turn back time and BMI Baby had three planes based at the airport between 2002 and 2012, creating around 100 jobs.

Its ex-boss, Dave Bryon, said the airport's location has not helped to bring airlines in.

He told ITV News: "The way you work on catchment is you typically look at a 60 minute drive time or 90 minute drive time.

"That’s your marketable area, and what other competition you had you can see on the map, the lower 180 degrees of it, is the Bristol Channel."

  • Dave Bryon spoke to ITV Cymru Wales' current affairs programme Wales this Week

He added: "Once you go past Swansea, the population density is really quite low. Once you get up into the valleys above that the population density is really quite low.

"On the east side, you've got the bridge. Now, when we started [at Cardiff] there was still a fee to cross the bridge.

"The English resented paying money to come into a country they were just about to fly out of and it was a psychological barrier."

However, it has not been all doom and gloom for Wales' only international airport.

  • Air France has announced daily flights to Paris from Cardiff operated by Eastern Airways

  • Ryanair has increased the number of flights and destinations from Cardiff

  • Aer Lingus has also returned, offering flights to Belfast

  • Tui will start flights to Sharm El-Sheikh from April next year

The airport's CEO, Spencer Burns, told ITV Cymru Wales that the Cardiff to Doha service is expected to resume next year.

Qatar Airways started a daily service to Doha in 2018 but it is currently suspended. Credit: PA Images.

He said: "For us, we're in negotiations with Qatar about how soon can they restart that and we've been very lucky actually because we've been going to see Qatar Airways with Welsh government ministers.

"We've been going in there with really strong commitments from Wales to say that we really want this service back.

"I think that's a really good advantage because our peers at other airports don't have that benefit."

  • Spencer Burns told ITV News that passengers "really want" Qatar Airways back

On the matter of Qatar Airways, the Welsh Conservative's shadow transport minster, Natasha Asghar MS said the decision to restart flights from Birmingham this year and not Cardiff is "disappointing and very concerning".

However, in light of recent comments from the airline's Chief Executive that flights to and from Cardiff are intended to resume in 2024, Ms Asghar added that "we have hope for the future".

“Getting Qatar Airways returning to Cardiff Airport has to be the upmost priority for Labour’s Transport Minister with the airline attracting passengers and hopefully more carriers to the airport, securing its future.

“Flights from Cardiff on Qatar Airways saw a quarter of passengers travelling for business purposes which is essential for bringing economic prosperity and growth into Wales – these are priorities the Welsh government cannot miss.”

  • People in Denbigh said they would like to see an airport in north Wales

Across the bridge, Bristol Airport is booming and holidaymakers have told ITV Cymru Wales that it is cheaper and easier to get to and fly from.

The high court has given the green light for it to expand, allowing its terminal building to handle 12 million passengers every year.

However, Suzanne Cumpston, a travel agent at Sam Smith Travel in Cowbridge, told Andrea Byrne, that 95% of her clients "would prefer to fly from Cardiff".

The point often made by holidaymakers that Bristol is always cheaper to fly from than Cardiff was challenged by Suzanne.

On the matter of whether flying from Bristol is cheaper, compared to Cardiff, she said: "If you take into account fuel costs of getting to [Bristol] airport, car parking, I think it's slightly more expensive.

"If people compare Cardiff and Bristol, it has to be relative to their budget of whether they are willing to travel to Bristol.

"It's different with every case scenario we check."

Lee Waters MS, the minister who oversees transport across Wales, said the airport is talking to new airlines "right now". Credit: PA Images.

Cardiff saw a peak of two million people using its terminal, and that was in 2007, when the airport was in private hands.

Now, many living in south Wales choose to bypass it in order to fly from Bristol.

Cardiff University Professor Mark Barry is an expert on the airport.

He told ITV News: "They [Welsh government] have a choice. Do they keep on subsidising an airport that doesn't quite break even, or do they pull out?

"They'll get criticised for carrying on the subsidy, if they pull out, it'll probably close.

"If you have a million or less passengers, you really are at a point where's the any viability there.

  • Professor Mark Barry told ITV News that without government subsidy, the airport "would close"

"I can see the strategic importance of having an airport because of local jobs, its profile, the fact if Cardiff and south east Wales wants to be seen as a business location, you need to say we have an international airport."

"How you price that verses the things you can't do with the money, because you're subsidising the airport, is a political choice. I don't pretend that's easy.

"The reality is, if the subsidy isn't there, the airport would close.

"The private sector won't save Cardiff Airport."

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