How Sheffield Airport took off but failed to reach the dizzy heights

In February 1998 optimism was high. ‘Off to flier’, ‘Sheffield takes off’, ‘Up and away’ were just a few of The Star’s enthusiastic headlines.

By Charles Smith
Thursday, 9th June 2022, 1:47 pm
British Airlines and Sheffield City Airport staff celebrate during the good times
British Airlines and Sheffield City Airport staff celebrate during the good times

The optimism wasn’t to last though.

The gloomy headline in October 2004 told a different story – ‘Just a quid for skid-row airport’.

Yes, the rise and fall of Sheffield City Airport had taken just a handful of eventful years.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

There were high hopes Sheffield City Airport would really take off

The first commercial flights had taken off in 1997 but the real excitement was reserved for when passengers could travel.

And on February 16, 1998, the big day came as KLM uk flight 430 took off for Amsterdam. Twenty minutes late. The next flight was also delayed. Perhaps it was an omen.

Everything had looked good in 1997 when the first commercial flights took off from Tinsley but the soaring business over the first few buoyant years soon faded as one airline operator after another fell by the wayside.

And by 2002, just four years after that first flight took to the skies for Amsterdam, the airport had been reduced to a rather fancy landing strip for high-fliers with private planes.

The airport’s runway was said to be too short

It had, however, hosted the occasional celebrity touchdown – including the Queen and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, no less.

It was British Airways who sounded the death knell for the airport, axing the last remaining daily flight to Belfast.

They blamed the length of the runway – an issue which had plagued the airport from its start.

At 1,199 metres, bosses said, it was too short to run economically viable services.

Neil Pakey, commercial director of Peel Airports Ltd, said at the time: “The runway length as Sheffield has made it virtually impossible for BA to develop the Belfast service and other services.

“As no low cost operator can operate into Sheffield, the focus for the airport must be in developing the strong business aviation and helicopter markets.”

It was a far cry from those early days...three daily flights to Amsterdam, soon followed by weekend hops to Jersey and an air taxi service to London City.

Then there were flights to Belfast and Dublin and boastful predictions of a sparkling future.

In 2005 the airport would be handling 700,000 passengers a year, it was proudly, but wrongly, claimed.

By 2010 that figure would have hit the magic one million mark and Sheffield would be serving six European and nine UK airports.

But the world and economic landscape changed. Budget flight, the horrors of 9/11 hit the travel industry and the possibility of an airport with a proper runway at Finningley – now thriving Doncaster Sheffiled Airport – was gathering even more pace.

At the end of 1999, the Amsterdam flights – by then Sheffield’s only link with Europe – were axed. Flights to Brussels were restored the following but were short-lived

and in April BA grounded flights to London, blaming poor passenger numbers.

The airport had failed – money lost estimated to be anything up to £5m.

The subsequent row over the sale of the land for £1 is another sorry saga.

Final words to Sheffield’s then-Lib Dem leader Paul (now Lord) Scriven: “This whole thing is becoming like an episode of Keystone Cops (Google it, kids) with people running around in all directions and panicking instead of drawing up a proper plan.”