End of the line for Sheffield airport

The low-key departure of a small, private plane has marked what could be the end of Sheffield's aviation dream as the city becomes one of only a handful in the world to close its airport. Richard Marsden reports

THERE was no fanfare as an aircraft yesterday took off on what was likely to be the last ever flight from Sheffield City Airport – unless a last-ditch legal fight against the closure can succeed.

Soon after the facility opened in 1997, managers were forecasting it would be a soaraway success, with annual passenger numbers of 500,000 predicted within a decade.

But the last scheduled flight ceased only five years later and, when closure was announced in January, owners Peel said a total of just 20 private flights a day were arriving or departing – not enough to make money.

The airport is not officially closing until next Wednesday but its licence with the Civil Aviation Authority has now expired.

The terminal building used to be kitted out just like any other airport, with a row of check-in desks, car hire, separate departure and arrivals areas, security, duty free shop and catering facilities.

Over the last few years, however, it has been converted into offices.

Arrival is at a reception desk.

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The only clue you are at an airport is the view of the runway through the glazed rear windows.

Facing redundancy, the 15 remaining staff are understandably downcast but have fond memories of happier times.

Customer service agent Dawn Bryan, who mans the reception, said she was "devastated" to hear news of the closure.

She has worked at the airport since it opened – and met her husband Daniel there.

Dawn said: "He is a fire service crew commander, now working at Robin Hood Airport.

"I was flown by helicopter from the airport to our wedding at Aston Hall Hotel.

"I have loads of good memories. When it opened, there were 50 staff. When British Airways first flew here, we all got a 500 bonus.

"And we've had plenty of royalty and VIPs, such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Westlife. Everyone's disappointed the airport is closing because an airport is a vital link.

"The people still working here are a really close team – it's like a family. We're sad we won't be working here together anymore."

Since scheduled flights ended in 2002, the airport has been used by private flights and aircraft bringing in patients for specialist treatment at Sheffield's hospitals who would not be comfortable being transported by road. It is also the base of Sheffield City Flying School – but the business is moving to Robin Hood and Sandtoft aerodrome.

In the days before the airport's closure, The Star was given the chance to experience one of the last flights with the training school, accompanying pilot John Shaw on a short hop to Robin Hood Airport at Doncaster.

He said: "I think it's quite a shame it is going. Sheffield has been professionally run and has all the facilities we need."

Departure was no longer via a check-in desk or security, but by simply opening a door with a swipe card and walking on to the runway.

Within minutes, the journey was underway, the Piper 28 turbo-prop four-seater plane taxiing along to the western end of the runway and turning around for take-off.

Even as a fully-functioning international airport, the speed of getting through the terminal at Sheffield was a big advantage over its rivals.

Star deputy news editor Debbie Price was among its early passengers.

She said: "I flew to New York with KLM via Amsterdam. Check in, with its tiny queue, was a breeze and there was no massive trek to the departure lounge - it was just around the corner.

"When we returned to Sheffield, we watched our suitcases unload from the plane in front of us and were reunited with them within minutes – just enough time for our taxi to arrive and take us on the 20- minute journey home to the city."

Despite anger in Sheffield and the threat of legal action to halt the closure, City Airport's owners Peel believe they have made the right decision closing the facility and focusing their business on Robin Hood Airport, which marks its third anniversary on Monday.

Nick Smillie, aviation sales director, who is in charge of attracting airlines to use the company's airports, which also include Liverpool John Lennon and Durham Tees Valley, said: "Sheffield needs a significantly-sized airport. The reality of the airline market dictates that airports need to be big enough to handle Boeing 737s.

"Robin Hood Airport is 25 miles from Sheffield. In other cities, like Manchester, the airport is some distance away, too.

"Sheffield's distinctive, hilly geography means it cannot have a long enough runway and, in any case, having an airport close to a centre of population is not ideal.

"We need the people of Sheffield to be supportive of Robin Hood and recognise it as their own."

Despite Robin Hood losing flights to European cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Prague after airline Thomsonfly restructured its business to concentrate on package holiday destinations, Mr Smillie insists it is "an exciting time."

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Summer trans-Atlantic holiday flights by Thomsonfly have also been discontinued at Robin Hood, but passenger numbers climbed by 12 per cent over the 12 months to March, and are now at more than a million a year.

The airport's plans include developing a connection to a hub airport, such as Amsterdam, so passengers can transfer to longer-haul flights, and potentially starting scheduled flights to destinations such as the US.

One of Robin Hood's biggest assets is its runway, left behind from its days as RAF Finningley, a base for bomber planes. It is one of only four in Britain capable of handling the world's biggest jet, the Airbus 380 super jumbo.

"The real attraction of Robin Hood is that it's easy to use and near to where people live – 10 per cent of the UK population is within a 60-minute journey," Mr Smillie said.

More on next page

Rise and fall of airport - Click here.CONFIDENCE in Sheffield City Airport was sky high when it opened almost 11 years ago – 50 years after it was first proposed.

The 12.5 million facility, built on a former opencast coal mine, was the first to open in the UK since London City 10 years earlier and was designed along the same lines – to handle small planes providing regular flights for the business community.

A report in The Star on the opening day, June 10 1997, pointed to a potential market of 4.5 million people within a 45-minute drive and predicted it "could yet prove to be just the shot in the arm the city – and South Yorkshire – needs".

When it first opened, it was only used by private planes for the first eight months.

Scheduled flights began the following February, with Air UK, then the country's third biggest carrier, providing three return flights a day to Amsterdam, linking with Dutch airline KLM and American firm Northwest Airlines.

Return journeys to Amsterdam cost 114 and flights took 50 minutes, allowing Sheffield passengers the opportunity to transfer to long haul flights in the Netherlands in less time than it takes to reach Manchester Airport, let alone Heathrow.

By the end of 1998 – during which charter flights had also started to Jersey – KLM, which took over the Amsterdam link, was "struggling to meet peak demand".

The airport was not only popular with business people. A Special Branch police team based at the airport found themselves having to keep an eye on "big players" in the drugs scene, travelling to and from the Netherlands.

The first Royal visit happened in 1998, when Prince Andrew landed his helicopter unannounced, having been forced to touch down ahead of his original destination in Huddersfield, due to poor weather.

But in 2000, British Airways ditched services to London City and Dublin, then reduced its flights to Belfast.

Although the airline said launches of Irish routes from Sheffield had been their "most successful ever", it then claimed there was not enough business.

Services to Amsterdam and Brussels also ceased.

The same year, a replacement service to London City was an initial success, as businesses wanted to avoid rail delays, and a new Dublin service was also launched by Irish firm Aer Arran.

The last scheduled airline pulled out in 2002 – and Peel, which took over the airport the same year, said it could not find any operators willing to re-start services because growth at that time was from low-cost airlines using larger aircraft which could not land at Sheffield.

Under a controversial deal struck when the airport was developed in the mid 1990s, if the airport was not successful after 10 years, having maintained the facility and made all reasonable efforts to attract airlines, its owner would be allowed to buy the land for a nominal 1 for redevelopment.

The agreement was made to attract private investment when Sheffield's economy was fragile.

Having decided to close the facility, Peel has secured outline planning permission to dig up the runway to build a business park.

An independent report into the viability of the airport on behalf of Sheffield Council in 2005 concluded it would be years before the facility could be profitable and the only way to stop Peel's closure would have been to buy them out with taxpayers' money.

Consultants York Aviation said the 1 deal meant the airport was virtually doomed before it even opened.

Sheffield City Airport Movement, bankrolled by city steel magnate Andrew Cook, hopes to obtain a court injunction to preserve the facility.

SCAM claims operating conditions were broken by removal of facilities from the terminal building and alleges not enough was done to attract new business. Mr Cook says he may be interested in buying the airport and claims there would now be sufficient demand for high-frequency services to cities in Britain and Europe using small aircraft.

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