Poor bus and rail transport links leave Teesside Airport grounded - Neil McNicholas

Mayor Ben Houchen promoting Teesside International Airport.
Mayor Ben Houchen promoting Teesside International Airport.

IT is less than five miles from Yarm (where I live) to Teesside International Airport. However, the only international hub that you can fly to at present is Amsterdam, anywhere else and you first have to drive to Newcastle Airport (48 miles), Leeds-Bradford (55 miles), or Manchester (86 miles).

You can take a train from Yarm to Manchester Airport but the service provider is TransPennine Express and, with its current punctuality and service cancellation record, I wouldn’t want to risk missing a flight by taking TPE to Manchester.

Reliability of TransPennine Express services continues to deteriorate.

Reliability of TransPennine Express services continues to deteriorate.

Most people therefore opt to make the long-haul by road to Newcastle, Leeds, or Manchester even though we have an airport right on our doorstep, and the reason for that comes down to history.

Teesside Airport started life as an RAF airfield which finally closed in 1963 and was purchased by the local authority, Cleveland County Council, and was renamed Teesside International Airport on the basis that it offered flights to and from Amsterdam. I first flew out of the airport exactly 50 years ago in 1970, and continued to do so on a regular basis either on KLM to Schiphol or British Midland to Heathrow.

There were just a couple of check-in desks, a small shop, and an equally small café. Your boarding card said you would depart from “Gate 1” but there was only one gate anyway, as I recall. Your luggage was driven to and from the plane on the open back of a flatbed lorry – it still is!

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Would you rely on operatiors like TransPennine Express to make your airport connection?

Would you rely on operatiors like TransPennine Express to make your airport connection?

Over the years things began to improve. The airport started regular flights to Aberdeen when the exploration of the North Sea oil fields began, and the daily flights to Heathrow became increasingly popular not just for people making international connections, but for businessmen and women attending meetings either in London or on Teesside.

Even so it continued to suffer from a slight identity problem – even after all these years the departure lounge in Schiphol still hyphenates Teesside (Tees-side). Either no one has noticed or no one cares. But the issue of identity was to get even worse when the local authority was abolished and the airport was sold to private owners not based on Teesside. Against much local opposition, and as part of a rebranding initiative, in 2004 the airport was renamed Durham Tees Valley Airport. Schiphol continued to call it Tees-side(!) and not surprisingly because no one knew where Durham Tees Valley was – not even the people who live there.

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Somewhere in that whole process flights to London were stopped, thus severely reducing the potential number of passengers using the airport. The new owners introduced a £6 “fee” payable before you went through immigration – basically an airport tax over and above any such charge already included in the price of your ticket. That, too, went down like lead balloon. The station minibus link also stopped.

It began to look as if the new owners had little interest in the airport and were bent on gradually running it into the ground. Tumbleweed began to blow through.

Then in 2016 the Tees Valley Combined Authority was established (Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland, and Stockton local authorities) and they purchased 75 per cent of the airport and the other 25 per cent was purchased by Stobart Aviation, and with a tremendous wave of local support last year changed the name back to Teesside International Airport (though there are still some travel businesses calling it Durham Tees Valley).

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There is now a 10-year £588m investment plan in place which hopefully will see the airport return to its former self and better, with airlines already operating new international routes especially to holiday destinations. There is even talk of re-establishing a Heathrow link.

Among many other things, it means that “Teessiders” could be well on their way to European holiday destinations or making international connections farther afield in the time it currently takes to fight their way through the congested roads to Newcastle, or even worse traffic (and winter weather) to Leeds or Manchester.

But none of that takes away from the urgent need for more and better “joined-up” thinking and planning in terms of our public transport system and the factors that will encourage people off the roads and onto buses and trains.

They manage it in many other countries, so why can’t we in ours?

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.