Realising the potential of the UK's Regional Airports
Regional airports play a hugely important role in the United Kingdom. They provide national and international connectivity, are enablers of economic growth, and are significant direct and indirect employers of skilled people.
With both a mandate to level up and a newly published 10 year aviation strategic framework, the Government has clear opportunities to build on the existing attributes of regional airports and further increase the economic benefits that they can offer both to their regions and the UK.
Regional and City Airports (RCA) is a leading UK regional airport operator. RCA currently owns and operates Bournemouth, Exeter, Norwich and Coventry Airports and holds a management contract for Solent Airport. With its expertise RCA also carries out consultancy commissions at other airports and airfields. Additionally, RCA operates the growing XLR Executive Jet Centres FBO business that currently has operations at Birmingham, Bournemouth, Liverpool, and Exeter Airports. Through its operations before the pandemic RCA served 2.3m passengers and managed over 215,000 aircraft movements a year, serving as a gateway to and from the UK for the 7m people that live in the airports’ passenger catchment areas.
RCA positioning and challenge
RCA Airports have tremendous potential to provide more connectivity to more people, and a home for more aviation and non-aviation related businesses and their employees. The Government has the opportunity now to take bold decisions to unlock this potential.
RCA urges the Government to act upon and implement four specific policies:
1 - Supporting connectivity
Restoring and developing regional connectivity is vital to delivering growth and prosperity across the whole of the UK. To support this objective, RCA urges the Government to amend the UK’s PSO rules so that eligible routes can operate between regions rather than requiring a connection to London.
Furthermore, for routes where the PSO mechanism is not appropriate, RCA would strongly recommend that the authorities consider how funds raised from domestic Air Passenger Duty can be used to support the start-up of new or improved connections.
2 - Promote Skills & Training
The aviation skills debate often focuses on airline operations, with the skills required to deliver the wide range of services required at a commercial airport to facilitate an aircraft flight often mistakenly remaining overlooked.
Training, reskilling and upskilling is core to Regional & City Airports’ (RCA) operational delivery. Much of the training required by new starters or those taking new roles is carried out within the organisation, with use of specialist third parties to support more technical training requirements.
The opportunity to acquire new skills is widely regarded as one of the reasons airports have historically been an attractive place to work. Now, along with competitive rates of pay, the provision of training for new or enhanced skills is a key offer to a more selective labour market as the airport industry restarts after 2 years of disruption.
There is a well-publicised and pressing requirement for staff in passenger handling, security and aircraft and ground handling roles in the recovery phase. Less obvious is the increasingly serious requirement for skills replacement in more specialist, training intensive careers such as Airport Fire and Rescue, Air Traffic Control and Air Traffic Engineering.
Many well qualified practitioners in these arenas left the job market during COVID19, making recruitment and retention - which was already hugely stretched before the pandemic - an even greater challenge. RCA’s preferred approach has been and remains to ‘grow our own’, offering the opportunity to ambitious and talented staff to train in these disciplines, securing a valuable, well paid qualification and securing and an excellent quality of life for the employee.
Delivering this strategy is not straightforward. There is still no recognised apprenticeship for an Air Traffic Controller qualification, nor for any of the other specialist but easily defined technical roles that are in short supply.
Apprenticeship levy funds – which could be used for example to mitigate some of the c.£25-£30k cost of training an ATCO – cannot be put to work. This means training is at a premium and consequently, the barrier to entry to invest in a training course is higher. This reduces both the number of potential trainees and demand for courses from apprenticeship providers, creating a vicious circle of skills inertia.
Whilst focus is currently on solving short term operational staffing, the invisible skills shortage in ‘behind the scenes’, technical specialisms is becoming ever more acute and, if not addressed, has the potential to cause significantly greater operational disruption whose impact will be much longer lasting.
Unlocking the ability for organisations such as RCA to put the government’s apprenticeship levy to work training local people in the regions to fill well paid, secure jobs would create an important tool to help address a critical future issue.
3 - Designate regional airports as Freeports and Enterprise Zones
Following the launch of the first 10 UK freeports – defined areas where goods can be imported, manufactured or reexported without incurring domestic customs duties or taxes - the UK government should expand the scheme to cover all regional airports.
This would enable frictionless trade to and from the UK, with research conducted on a free port initiative for Northern Sea ports by the Centre for Policy Studies claiming that freeports could create over 86,000 jobs for Northern communities - demonstrably underlining how such a policy could serve the Government objective of addressing geographical imbalance in economic growth.
With regional airports located across the country, a freeports initiative for all regional airports would spur investment and growth for the whole of the UK and provide new opportunities for regional aviation centres, supporting their long-term survival and opening the potential for new passenger routes and freight operations.
Furthermore, expanding the network of Enterprise Zones to cover regional airports will help to address regional imbalance for economic growth and make regional airports attractive places to invest – helping to secure their long-term future and develop key new skills.
Generally accessible and outside established conurbations, with land available and operating as significant employment centres, airports generally already feature large in wider regional development plans as a key area for growth and development. Providing Enterprise Zone designation would serve to both strengthen and evolve this potential.
Investment into airport sites from new technology businesses, spurred on by the designation of Enterprise Zone status and the demand created by Net Zero initiatives, will help to ensure the long-term economic success of regional airports.
RCA urges the Government to expand the freeports concept to cover all regional airports and to designate them as Enterprise Zones with a presumption in favour of development - establishing a critical national infrastructure network to support the promotion of the UK as a global trading hub.
4 - Net Zero
In summer of 2021, RCA’s Exeter Airport hosted England’s first successful commercially-focused trial of a hybrid electric aircraft on a route between Exeter and Newquay airports.
Although only the first step on a long journey, the event underlined that regional airports’ space, resources and motivation can be put to work in the industry’s effort to ensure a sustainable future and to play its part in achieving Net Zero by 2050.
To succeed as an industry, we need to tackle the challenge not just from the perspective of a small set of specific outcomes, but in a holistic sense that examines every aspect of the industry and drills down on hundreds of specific sets of challenges and solutions.
That effort requires an infrastructure to support it, but we do not have to build one from scratch. The UK’s Regional airports already offer the real estate, connectivity and skill clusters that will be required to support the initiative and are well positioned to provide the UK with a technical backbone capable of delivering a vital but ambitious set of targets.
RCA urges the government to engage with the regional aviation sector, understand its already extensive capabilities, and work with stakeholders to transform the existing infrastructure into a coordinated team effort towards a sustainable future.