12 May 2022
The FlyPlymouth campaign to reopen Plymouth Airport has new impetus this week after the Ministry of Defence (MOD) started a bidding process for a new five-year Royal Navy helicopter support contract.
Fleet Operational Sea Training (FOST) was based at Plymouth Airport for 16 years. It was forced to relocate to Newquay in 2011 when Plymouth Airport closed.
FOST has since been expanded to include support for the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers and for Maritime Counter Terrorism, and the new five-year contract will be awarded in 2023 for start by March 2024 and could potentially be extended for up to 10 years.
Day-to-day operational activity remains centred around the Plymouth area as the FOST teams are based at Devonport. This requires frequent transits to and from Newquay with increased fuel and maintenance costs for the RN customer and the operator.
“The optimal base for this helicopter support contract therefore is Plymouth and Plymouth Airport is now being looked at by potential bidders,” said a statement from FlyPlymouth.
David Simpson, formerly Chief Operating Officer at British International Helicopters (BIH) which looks after the contract, said, “The FOST activity is critical in ensuring the Royal Navy’s ships are fully combat capable and safe to operate, in addition to the many NATO and foreign warships that also request their services for such activity off Plymouth.
“The loss of the Plymouth City airport base was an unnecessary degradation of the service from many perspectives.
“It is critical now that bidders have confidence that the airfield will be available to them by mid 2023 at the very latest if they are to include the City airport base in their final proposals. It’s time for Plymouth City Council to stop procrastinating and get the airport re-opened this year.”
FlyPlymouth chief executive Raoul Witherall, writing on the website Business Travel News, said there was still a good economic case for bringing back flights to and from the city.
“We have held many meetings with the various parties; made funded offers to acquire the airport at multiples of the market value in an attempt to get the thing done. Yet nothing happens. Council officers press on with their ‘airport options’ paying little heed to external influences.”
Plymouth City Airport closed in 2011 when Sutton Harbour Group, leaseholder and then operator of the airport, triggered a clause enabling it to stop flights if the aerodrome was deemed uneconomic. Instead, they want to build on the site.
Mr Witherall continued, “In Plymouth 40,000 people petitioned to retain the airport provoking a unanimous vote of councillors in support. As a result, Plymouth’s airport is protected in the Local Plan.
“The business community is supportive; most MPs have been supportive for most of the time – even joining the All-Party Parliamentary Group on General Aviation. Local political parties have been verbally supportive; a recent council administration adopted reopening as policy with one cabinet member describing plans for the airport as ‘a breath of fresh air’ – the best thing for Plymouth they had heard in 10 years.”