Doncaster Sheffield Airport: From abandoned RAF base to international travel hub - and what its future could hold

Turning an abandoned RAF base into an international airport was one of Doncaster's biggest achievements - yet it could now have reached the end of the runway.

It was in 2005 that Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield first opened to passengers in a location that many considered a surprise.

South Yorkshire had been without a regional airport since the last scheduled flights from Sheffield City ended in 2002 - the site having struggled to attract airlines in the early years of the budget travel revolution because of space constraints. Peel Airports purchased the site, as well as that of RAF Finningley, the air base that was to become Doncaster Sheffield Airport.

The company chose to develop Finningley rather than Sheffield because of its major asset - a huge runway capable of accommodating aircraft used for long-haul routes and cargo planes. It was even designated as an emergency landing site for space shuttles.

Doncaster Sheffield Airport

The runway is 3,000 metres in length and dates from the Cold War period, when the iconic Avro Vulcan fleet that saw service in the Falklands was stationed at Finningley. The base closed in 1997, leaving a large amount of land vacant, including hangars and the infrastructure of a military installation.

As the plans gathered pace, there were rival campaign groups in Doncaster representing residents of the nearby villages who feared noise disturbance.

The Robin Hood name - chosen for its international resonance - also caused controversy, with many opponents pointing out that the legendary outlaw had no real links to either Doncaster or Sheffield and is associated mainly with Nottinghamshire, which borders Doncaster to the south - though airport managers hoped to attract passengers from the north Midlands. The airport was rebranded as Doncaster Sheffield in 2016.

The major carrier in the early years was Thomson, now TUI, who operated the first flight to depart in 2005 - a short-haul trip to Majorca whose passengers included journalists invited to report on the occasion. The first destinations had a focus on European sun spots, with Ryanair and Balkan Air joining Thomson, but by 2007, long-haul flights to North America had been introduced, with a roster that included Ontario, Orlando and Cancun. Yet in the first year of operations, passenger numbers fell short of the predicted one million, and the American routes were later discontinued.

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Doncaster Sheffield Airport faces closure as 'no longer commercially viable'

By 2009, Ryanair had scrapped its Dublin service and suspended summer routes to Alicante and Girona, decisions attributed to tax rises.

There was optimism in 2010 when planning restrictions on night flights were relaxed, allowing airport bosses to promote Doncaster as a freight hub suitable for large - and noisy - cargo aircraft.

The first sign of trouble came in 2011, when EasyJet withdrew flights just five months after they began. The carrier had flown to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Faro, Palma de Mallorca and Prague from Doncaster. Ryanair stepped in and added new flights to Faro and Tenerife, but the operator later left Doncaster.

At the time, EasyJet's decision was blamed on operational restrictions, as only one aircraft was used and it was not based at the site. Airport management said that 'timings of key flights' were not attractive to business travellers, though when schedules were more favourable flights had been almost full. The single plane was transferred to Liverpool.

In 2014, a long-term deal with signed with TUI Group, who took over the Thomson and First Choice routes. At the time, the destinations included Tunisia, Jamaica, Finland and Egypt as well as European resorts. Capacity was increased for the summer of 2015, with flights to Antalya in Turkey and the Greek island of Zante beginning and a total destination count of 20.

The opening of a new link road to the airport, the Great Yorkshire Way, from the M18 was further cause for hope that expansion would happen.

Flybe pulled out in 2019, having operated city break flights to Alicante, Amsterdam, Belfast City, Dublin, Faro, Jersey, Malaga, Newquay, Palma and Paris. They had had a presence at the airport since 2006, but expanded their services considerably in 2016.

The troubled carrier announced at the start of that year that it would cut eight of its 10 routes from Doncaster Sheffield at the end of 2019 and withdraw its two jets from the base, with the remaining flights to Amsterdam and Belfast City being operated by smaller aircraft based elsewhere. Yet these routes were also eventually deemed unviable.

Wizz Air had become the second major carrier after TUI, with the Hungarian low-cost brand's UK arm initially launching 10 routes, mainly to eastern Europe, from Doncaster. In 2020, the airline confirmed Doncaster as its second UK base and added seven more destinations. They first began operating on a small scale from Doncaster in 2006, flying to Polish cities and serving the growing community of Poles who had settled in South Yorkshire after the country joined the EU.

Yet in June 2022, in a major blow for Doncaster Sheffield's viability, Wizz permanently axed 13 flights.

This week, Peel announced that the airport was entering into a six-week strategic review period as flying could no longer be considered 'commercially viable' following the Covid pandemic - and that closure is being considered.

What could become of Doncaster Sheffield if commercial flights end?

Crucially, Doncaster has succeeded in becoming a major cargo hub. Around 10,000 tonnes of freight a year are now handled, and the world's largest aircraft can land there. Poignantly, the biggest of them all, the Antonov An-225, which had become a regular visitor to Doncaster, was damaged when its base in Ukraine was bombed in the war. Businesses associated with freight as well as aircraft maintenance are located in the hangars. It's possible that more landing slots could be given to cargo operators if passenger traffic does not recover.

There are also civilian flight schools based at the site, for pilot training on both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, and these providers could remain.

The airport's most famous tenant is the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, who care for the XH558 aircraft - a Cold War survivor. It is based in a hangar at the airport, but it has not flown since 2015. The charity have plans to establish a heritage visitor centre at the airport with the Vulcan as the main attraction.

The Trust is currently in talks with airport management about the future of the agreement.

The area around the airport has developed considerably since 2005, with a business park established and new housing built. The old RAF officers' mess is now occupied by a school.

Television filming is also a possibility - programmes such as Emmerdale, Hustle and the film Four Lions were shot at the site. The large hangars would be sought-after as locations.