The case against a runway extension

In the 30 years since I first worked at Guernsey Airport, there have been many changes. Security has been ramped up, grass has given way to concrete, hangars have sprung up, a new terminal has risen in place of the old and £80m has been spent on re-profiling and resurfacing the runway and repurposing a meadow.

Change is a constant. On a small island, sea and air links take on a particular importance and maintaining these links and keeping them affordable is an enduring topic. So, the idea of extending the runway certainly bears thinking about. The question is, does that idea stand up to scrutiny?

In 2017, the Committee for Economic Development agreed, by a majority, to spend many tens of thousands of pounds on consultants to look into the matter, despite it having been investigated previously. This went back-and-forth a bit and there was a change of political membership on the Committee and in the end another, more expensive, report was commissioned which has recently become available. While the report was being put together however, the pandemic began which clearly has an impact on the report’s conclusions. Those conclusions are based on estimates and guesses – this isn’t a criticism as such as no one has a crystal ball. But the business case is based on a 40-year payback period – and whatever aviation looks like in Guernsey by 2060 it is likely to be quite different to what it looks like now.

Now, there’s only one reason to make the runway longer and that is to accommodate aircraft that need a greater landing or take-off distance than is currently available. One might be forgiven therefore for assuming that there are no other airlines with aircraft that can fit on our current runway. Not so – there are airlines based in the UK, Ireland or on the near continent that have aircraft which could happily use our runway just as it is, with seat capacities ranging from about 16 to 122. Small passenger aircraft are not about to disappear. They’re needed for small regional airports and on thinner routes where operating a 180-seat jet is just not economic. So maybe the first question to ask before spending and eye-watering £100m is why none of them are coming here now? It isn’t because of the length of the runway.

Of course, no discussion of a longer runway is complete without mention of easyJet.  The lure of a headline fare of £9.99 is seductively attractive, not least when compared with a last-minute half-term Aurigny ticket at fifteen times the price. However, the average price for an easyJet ticket across their network is £56. Whilst a few people are paying a tenner, others are paying £150 for the same trip. Aurigny works to a direction that requires over half of its Gatwick flights to be sold for £67 or less. Perhaps the average price difference isn’t quite as large as imagined?

And even if the fares from a large, low-cost operator might be a little cheaper, due in no small part to some costs being transferred from the passenger to the Guernsey taxpayer by way of zero landing and passenger fees, what percentage is that saving of holiday here or a trip away? When it’s hard to find a great deal of accommodation locally for much under £100 a night, maybe air fares aren’t the only or even the main reason people don’t travel. Further diversifying our tourist accommodation offering is an avenue to pursue. Perhaps what also needs addressing is better utilisation of Aurigny’s aircraft to reduce the taxpayer subsidy and maybe a different pricing structure? This is something that the next States needs to seriously address by coming to a firm decision on the role of Aurigny to enable the board to plan accordingly.

But all this debate about fares is largely academic. Advocates of extending the runway have not produced evidence that a low-cost operator would definitely come here if the runway was lengthened. It’s also worth saying that their business model includes aggressive negotiation of airport fees. In short, they would rather not pay any. Loss of revenue to the States could therefore be significant. And that income would have to be made up through increased taxes or charges elsewhere. The only route that a 180-seater aircraft could feasibly operate on a daily basis is Gatwick. If the States were to licence another airline on the Gatwick route then Aurigny’s days are numbered and flight frequency will tumble. We saw the unwise handing over of the best part of a million pounds of taxpayer money to Flybe to operate a Heathrow route in direct competition with Aurigny. For every return seat sold, the Guernsey taxpayer was parting with around £80 to subsidise it.

Comparisons are often made with Jersey and the services they have. But Jersey’s population is half as large again as Guernsey’s, the demographic is different and the tourist offering is different. Pre-Covid, Jersey also had destinations operated by aircraft that could have come here. But they didn’t – and again, it was not the runway length stopping them.

Some people claim that easyJet could operate a regional service, such as Liverpool. Before Covid, Guernsey had a twice-daily service to Manchester, enabling day trips and global connections. Even if there were any chance of filling a 180-seat aircraft to Liverpool, (there isn’t) it would certainly be at the expense of a popular, useful and year-round service to Manchester. Be careful what you wish for.

Others hope for new routes to the continent. In the not-too-distant past it was possible to fly from Guernsey to Zurich, Amsterdam and Geneva amongst other destinations. These services were operated on aircraft with seat capacities of around 35 and they could not be sustained. There is simply no possibility that they could work with an aircraft four or five times that size.

In a final act of desperation, those who believe in a pot of gold at the end of the (longer) runway throw up the idea that bigger aircraft could do triangular routes with Jersey. And, indeed, this is how the Exeter and Birmingham routes have been operated. But triangular routes are absolutely not low-cost operator territory. They’re time-hungry and it’s impossible to maximise the load factor because of the overlapping sector in the middle. They are the territory of small aircraft making a go of thin routes and as a result can never be ‘cheap’.

The idea that by being able to accommodate an aircraft with thirty to sixty more seats than is currently possible, we are going to magically transform the tourist, leisure and business travel markets is pure, unfettered, expensive fantasy. Less tangible than the cost but equally concerning, would be the loss of security on our lifeline routes and the inevitably reduced flight frequency that larger aircraft bring. We would need half the number of flights and there is no guarantee that there would be a red eye. It’s also hard to imagine that the commitment to getting people home in times of poor weather would be as strong.

Then there is also the opportunity cost to consider. A hundred million pounds of capital spent on building a runway extension is money that can’t be spent on other more pressing projects. Just like the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have been spent on consultants’ reports.