Why airport failed to get off the ground

A CONTROVERSIAL decision by planning councillors to allow Sheffield City Airport to be turned into a business park has killed off any chance the facility might be revived.

But it all looked so different back in 1997 when the first flight took off. A brief heyday followed which saw the airport offering flights to Belfast, Amsterdam, Brussels, Dublin, Jersey and London with the airlines KLM, Sabena and British Airways.

But even as the airport was being opened, a whole combination of factors were about to combine which would condemn it.

First was the meteoric rise of the low cost airlines in the UK - big planes packed full of passengers destined for chic European destinations for the price of a night out on West Street.

People flocked to snap up cheap tickets - but not at Sheffield. The airport's 1,200 metre runway wasn't big enough to accommodate the planes used by bargain firms such as Easyjet and Ryanair.

And because of strict rules covering noise and airfield safety around the airport the runway couldn't be extended.

Holidaymakers went elsewhere and the high-fare, short-hop business travellers never really materialised in any great numbers.

Then came the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11 2001.

That saw the numbers of people taking transatlantic flights plummet, causing big difficulties for operators such as British Airways.

Airlines had to make savings fast - and smaller airports like Sheffield City, in Tinsley, were the ones that lost out.

BA slashed its flights from Sheffield to key destinations including London, Belfast and Dublin and things started to look serious.

The killer blow came when Dutch 'anchor' tenant KLM suddenly pulled out, taking its flights to Amsterdam with it.

Attempts to attract other operators to fill the gap were hampered by the airport's lack of radar, which made it more difficult to attract airlines, many of whom felt that it was essential.

The last scheduled airline pulled out in 2002 and by then Robin Hood Airport was almost ready to open. The writing was on the wall.

The former RAF Finningley base already sported one of the longest runways in Britain, making it a much more attractive option for airlines and passengers.

And so the dream of an airport for Sheffield has died, probably for good.

The runway will be shortened to less than a third of its current length and the land used for office development.

It may still be used as a heliport and there are talks too about short 'taxi' flights to nearby airports.

Fears are already being expressed by development firm Sheffield One that the offices planned for the airport site could make those being built in the city centre less saleable - hitting the city centre's revival.

But the decision to allow the business park to go ahead was taken with a heavy heart.

Coun Ian Saunders described it as "the hardest decision I have ever had to take", while his colleague Coun Mike Peat added: "It is a sad day."

But others have expressed anger at the decision. Sheffield Conservative leader Anne Smith said: "It is the economics of the madhouse. We are one of the few cities in the world to close an airport.

"In 20 years' time it will be a decision that is bitterly regretted. You never get an airport back."

She said the airport's proximity, just four miles outside Sheffield city centre, meant passengers didn't have to make long, environmentally unfriendly journeys.

"Not only that, but we could lose the chance to reap the benefits of the Olympic Games in 2012," she added. "What chance does Sheffield have of being a major city of the 21st Century if we lose our airport?"

Others have wondered too at the effort, or perhaps lack of it, which owners Peel Holdings appeared to put into making a real go of the airport. Peel also owns Sheffield City Airport's main competitor Robin Hood Airport, near Doncaster.

Peel had been given the option by Sheffield Development Corporation bosses to buy the entire airport site for just 1 if it could prove the site was not viable as an airport by 2007.

Some claimed that was tantamount to an unwritten incentive for it to fail.

Once the business park is built the value of the land could rocket to more than 1 million.

David Ryall, airport director at Sheffield City Airport and managing director at Robin Hood Airport, said Peel Holdings always had intended to run the Tinsley site as an airport.

"It was seen as something that was not on its knees and there was no guarantee that Robin Hood was going to happen. But after September 2001 aviation took on a different form. Low-cost carriers came to the fore. If you did not have a 2,000 metre runway you were not going to pick up the Ryanairs and Easyjets." And now, Sheffield City Airport never will.Onwards and upwards as RObin Hood gets rich pickings

IF the ill-fated Sheffield City Airport never really achieved lift off, then Robin Hood Airport down the road is soaring ever upwards and onwards.

Officially known as Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, the airport at the former RAF Finningley airbase claims to have more than six million potential customers within a 60 minute drive.

Its first commercial flight took off for Palma, Majorca in April 2005 and soon the airport was thronged with passengers. Three months after opening it had handled 300,000 passengers. By December 2005 the figure rose to 500,000 and within the first year had risen to 900,000.

The former long-range nuclear bomber base sports a runway more than 2,800 metres long - the biggest in northern Britain.

And it is this that makes it attractive to big operators like Thomsonfly, Thomas Cook, Pegasus, and Ryanair, all of whom now fly from Robin Hood.

Scheduled destinations already include Belfast City, Dublin, Girona, Pisa, Alicante, Amsterdam, Faro, Jersey, Mlaga, Palma, Paris-Orly, Pisa, Prague, and Salzburg.

Transatlantic flights to Toronto are due to start in May and it also caters for a whole host of chartered destinations during the holiday summer season. There are also plans to fly to Pakistan starting this summer.

As well as a long runway the airport has 2,500 car parking spaces and a 150-bed hotel due to open later this year.

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