A guest blog post by Jules Serkin
I am now officially a “Supporter” of Manston Airport, having added my name to the many fans on www.whynotmanston.org. Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be flying from there any time soon.
To be clear, I love everything about the airport – the low-cost car park, the 2 minute walk to the terminal, the friendly faces of familiar security and check-in staff, the lack of queues at passport control and, on return, the ridiculously quick drive home. Back in the days of the fated EUJet, I was a regular jet set, hopping from Galway to Madrid and back to Planet Thanet in a jiffy.
After interviewing Charles Buchanon, Manston’s chief executive, on Channel Radio’s Business Bunker Show last week, I was ready to give the airport another go. In fact, with my co-host Paul Andrews opening the interview with ‘I’m Going to Barbados’ (whoa!), I practically had my suitcase packed for Coconut Airways flight 372!
So, I signed up as one of the WhyNotManston faithful and thought about where to jet off to. Logging onto www.manstonairport.com I was invited to “Discover the World,” with 130 destinations at my fingertips. Where to first? Alicante! Europe’s most popular tourist destination, lovely climate this time of year – that’s got to be a good start for a trial run.
Clicking on the KLM tab to book flights, I typed over the default destination of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (much as I love saying the name). I chose some random off peak dates only to find every flight priced at over £300. That’s more expensive than the main charters during the height of the school holiday getaway. The journey time ranged from 9 hours to over 11 hours, well over double the travel time from Gatwick or Stansted.
The reason of course is that the 130 destinations are not direct from Manston. You need to go via Amsterdam. While the stop-off isn’t ideal, flying from Manston can still work out saving time and money depending on where you’re going. Flights to Rome, for example, seem more reasonable in terms of cost and travel time. But it does help explain why the airport with one of the longest runways in northern Europe and capacity to fly 1 million passengers is way under-utilised.
The tie-up with Air France and KLM announced in April was a first step but it’s not enough. “We need government encouragement,’’ Charles told us in the radio interview. Britain levies the highest passenger duty at eight or nine times any other country in Europe, explained Charles. “It’s one reason why six times more Chinese visit Paris than London. So why not reduce passenger duty at small uncongested airports – that would provide an incentive for airlines to use under-utilized capacity airports.’’
Another bugbear is the train service linking Manston to London. Airport enthusiasts are lobbying for a new station – Thanet Parkway – at the center of island that would serve the airport as well as a hub for local towns.
The airport currently employs around 150 people directly, with about 100 more employed in the commerce that has developed in the area – the café, travel agency, aircraft engineers and border police. Aside from the job creation, the airport provides a portal for tourists to visit Thanet from all over the world. “KLM operates from Amsterdam to lots of regional UK airports, so people coming to Manston are coming to visit Kent,’’ Charles points out.
Even with all his ambition for the airport, Charles is keen to clear up one common misconception: “It’s not the answer to Boris Island. Developing regional airports, plus main airports, is the best way,” says Charles. “If Boris Island were to be built, no one could justify developing any other airport.”
Unlike the plans for building around Isle of Grain, which evoked massive opposition because of the inevitable damage to wildlife, Manston is already developed and ready to go after decades of use as a bomber and recovery station for the RAF in the war.
For now, the most obvious benefit from Manston is our link with the Netherlands. To that end, Kent County Council, Kent International Business and 2 Seas Trade are hosting a conference on October 24 at 3pm entitled “Doing Business in the Netherlands.” For more details, see www.2seastrade.eu/events.
Tweet me @julesserkin, tune in to The Business Bunker 1-2.30 pm live every Tuesday on Channel Radio, or attend a Kent Business Tweetup in Canterbury, Whitstable, Faversham or Ashford. Listen to The SCOFF & QUAFF show live on Tuesdays from 11-12 pm for food news for Kent.