UNTIL now, it’s been something of a South Yorkshire secret. Whisper it quietly, but the airport which everyone once said was a massive white elephant has been gradually making a name for itself as super-welcoming, convenient and easy-to-navigate.
There’s even a Wetherspoon’s pub which serves as a de facto departure lounge.
Indeed, if it was up to me, I’d never use another airport again. When we went on holiday to Spain this summer, the whole experience of flying to and from Doncaster Sheffield was an absolute breeze.
From leaving our front door in a taxi to rocking up at the entrance after an half-hour drive on quiet, uncongested roads, the whole experience was as stress-free as travelling by air can be. It brought to mind a really good regional airport in America, a country which by and large, got its head around streamlined passenger aviation half a century before we even thought about it.
We’re lucky of course. We live in Barnsley, so the former RAF Finningley airbase is our local airport. Soon though, if plans announced this week come to fruition, it might be our new national point of embarkation to the world. Bosses at the airport have announced proposals for Doncaster Sheffield to rival Manchester and Stansted, with the hope that a new station could be constructed to provide a fast rail link from the capital to South Yorkshire.
Sounds futuristic? It is. Then again, they do things differently there. The positive experience starts before you even enter the terminal. Doncaster Sheffield is well served by the A1 and the mostly dual carriageway roads which lead to it. This was a massive factor in why we chose to fly from there. I have experienced too many hair-raising journeys across the winding Woodhead Pass to Manchester Airport with the minutes ticking by to departure with anxiety-inducing speed. There is nothing more frightening – or frustrating – than finding yourself stuck in the perpetual traffic at Mottram Moor wondering if you’re going to make the flight on time.
From where I live, other alternatives such as Leeds Bradford and East Midlands have always struck me with similar concern. What if we get stuck in a tail-back? On occasion, I have circumvented this possibility by arranging to stay overnight in an airport hotel before we fly.
However, the expense and inconvenience of this plan all too often outweighs the benefits. I once drove all the way from Barnsley to Heathrow to fly to Los Angeles with my two children, both under 10 at the time. The car journey back home around the M25 and up the M1 was horrendous. How fantastic it would be if families could start such adventures from our very own doorstep.
Doncaster Sheffield has the potential to be much more than a regional airport; unlike its West Yorkshire counterpart Leeds Bradford, it boasts runways long enough to handle the world’s largest aeroplanes. The scope for development, not just for passenger traffic, but for freight and cargo is immense.
No wonder Peel Group, which owns much of the vast acres surrounding the site, have been beavering away on proposals to put it forward as a rival to the congested nightmare that is Heathrow. Their Vision for Transformational Growth is ambitious; it includes a station which would service a 90-minute rail link from London. This would cost in the region of £100m to £150m.
Let’s not let anxieties about HS2 cloud this dream, for now. Such a scheme would be reliant largely on private funding, with some back-up from public money. We’ve got to give Peel Group a chance to formulate their plans. And let’s face it. They can’t make a worse mess of things than the Government’s plans to improve our North/South transport infrastructure to date.
Speaking of North/South, what any development of Doncaster Sheffield would do, of course, is help to redress the balance between both halves of the country and contribute to the much-maligned idea of the Northern Powerhouse. And why not? While there will be concerns about the potential increase in aircraft noise and pollution, as a country we have hard facts to face if we want to keep our economy moving.
And just think of the jobs and economic benefits a major airport in South Yorkshire would bring. Doncaster is already thriving as a transport and logistics hub. Investment in the airport would surely have a knock-on effect. It can only be positive news for towns such as Barnsley and Rotherham, and the former mining villages still struggling to find a new direction.
I’ve travelled all over the world, but the nicest airport I know is the one closest to home. Part of me is concerned that Peel Group’s ambitious plans would destroy the appeal of Doncaster Sheffield, but it would be a shame to allow sentiment to get in the way of progress. I wish those charged with the next stage of its development good luck and bon voyage.