Cardiff Airport…stick or twist?

Its ten years since Welsh Government bought Cardiff Airport…leading again to a polarised debate. In another shorter than usual article I want to try and unpack some of the issues and choices …and my views have been shaped by experts in the field of aviation (they know who they are!). So, do we stick or twist?

I’ll also declare that I did prepare a report for WG[i] in advance of that purchase ten years ago that explored some of the regional and strategic context related to the airport. In that report I did refer back (as I will again here) to the major  UK Gov study of UK airport capacity back in 2002[ii].  I also shared some thoughts with ITV Wales on the subject.

As an opening line I’ll state its airlines who decide where they fly from and to, not airports; and such decisions are influenced mainly by three things: 

  1. The catchment population of an airport – typically who can get there in 1-2 hours. Airlines will want to know there will be enough people to get on their planes
  2. The propensity to fly of that population  – relates to GDP/capita of the catchment
  3. The commercial deal the airline can strike with the airport – and note many smaller airports have “bought” PAX by offering low charges to airlines just so they can maintain revenues from airport retail and car parking.

As a final opening gambit, we have a climate emergency and flying is not great in respect of carbon emissions!

Some General Points and Stats First…

  • Most of the UKs major airports are poorly located, given they nearly all developed on airfields used by the RAF in the second world war

  • Current carbon footprint of aviation across EU contributes about 4% of total emissions  Figure 2  – cars still higher at 12~15% (they are about 60% of all transport emissions)

  • When compared to other modes short haul domestic flights have a bad carbon profile (carbon per passenger Km), only surpassed by long haul business/first class!

  • Biggest culprits are increasing numbers of low occupancy private jets (inc too many football teams!)!
  • From “Transport and the Environment[iii]: Aviation’s climate impact is disproportionate and growing fast. But it is caused by a very small group of people. Just 1% of people cause 50% of global aviation emissions. The report exposes the outsized role played by the super-rich hopping on private jets for super short distances.

  • Trams, Rail and then EVs better!

But there will still be a need to fly, and technology innovation (especially re: fuel and material science) is progressing and will reduce the overall impact of the sector. So, I try, as we all should, to fly less; I avoid short haul flying (and have not done so for over 4 years) and tend to train to northern Europe.  I will still fly to the US and southern Europe and note that for both, more fuel-efficient twin-engine jets are reducing the carbon costs of flying.  In fact, in terms of fuel efficiency, for trans-Atlantic trips to the US the new Boeing twin engine 787 “Dreamliners” are outperforming the older 4 engine 747s and even the giant Airbus A380s[iv]  Figure 3.

Figure 1 From “Our World in Data[v]

Figure 2 From the EU Environment Agency[vi]

Figure 3 From “Size Matters for Aircraft Fuel Efficiency” by Dan Rutherford 2018

Back to Cardiff Airport

Previous studies have highlighted Cardiff’s relatively poor international connectivity Vs other city regions and how that impacts the economy of SE Wales. The situation is still true today – one of the reason the Green Investment Bank quoted for not choosing Cardiff as a location was its poor connectivity to other European business locations.  So, whether we like it or not, and in whatever post Covid economy and travel patterns we eventually settle on, international connectivity is still important to regional economies.

Another relevant metric is the catchment population of an airport, and Cardiff airport is relatively small and in terms of 1-2 hours drive and propensity to fly, Bristol has over 2 times the catchment. Airlines will always prefer to fly from Bristol over Cardiff!

Pre covid Cardiff was approaching 2M PAX which was the airports “high water mark” back in 2007 when BMIBaby was expanding before falling back to 1M in 2013 when WG stepped in to take over from Abertis. It has now fallen back and may struggle to recover to much more than 1M PAX let alone 2M or more; Bristol is already back up to 7M.

Table 1 – Approx. PAX figures for Cardiff and Bristol Airports

 20072013201920221-2 hr catchment

Sobering to note that Doncaster Airport with 0.9M PAX in 2022 (so higher than Cardiff) actually closed.

So do we stick…?

The stark reality is that WG are in a “no win” situation.  They either continue subsiding a loss-making airport because of its wider strategic and employment benefits (look at my 2013 report – approx. 500-100 direct jobs per 1M Airport PAX , a similar ratio for indirect jobs in the airport supply chain) or they pull out.  In the current climate and need to reduce flying anyway, the airport will in my view not attract a buyer and close.  Both options generate negative publicity and are bad politics. So, I’m glad I am not a politician! 

At this point though I would ask, especially for those who want more public control of our rail and bus services. If its ok to subsidise rail and bus ( and I agree in subsidising such modes given their wider benefits) then why not airports?  It costs at least ten times  more each year to support rail and bus operations in Wales than it costs to support Cardiff Airport.

Cardiff Airport is in fact a very small business – turning over probably £20M per annum – probably a lot less than most of the Tesco stores in Wales!

So do we “Twist”….How about a new Airport!!!

Crazy you all howl, climate change, carbon emissions – yes I know  – so hear me out!

Firstly, way back in 2002, there were proposals for a new “Severnside Airport”. I believe Heathrow actively lobbied against such a proposal given it was a real threat to their business. One scheme proposed, by Sir Michael Stephen, was for an estuary runway and a terminal near Llanwern. Another from Madoc Batcup, was for an airport on the site of Llanwern. I even had an article published by Estates Gazette on the subject in 2002.  I was also asked to leave a WDA Board meeting (which to be fair I hadn’t been invited to anyway!) because they, like Welsh Government at the time, were not planning on supporting the Severnside option in the 2002 DfT Review (a big strategic error in my view at that time)!  I still have a copy of the comprehensive proposals and plans submitted by Sir Michael and his team (led by HOK International) in 2003 Figure 4 .  I later followed up the subject matter in a 2013 article on Severnside.

Figure 4  Illustration from 2002 Submission re Severnside by HOK International

Figure 5 From “The Future Development of Air Transport in the UK: Wales, DfT, July 2002

Well, as we all know, Severnside Airport did not happen, and it is instructive to note the  Wales Appendix of the UK Government “The Future Development of Airport Transport in the United Kingdom: Wales”  stated  Figure 4:

“Our analysis suggests that a new airport there (Severnside) would be viable only if Cardiff or Bristol Airport, or both, were to close or become congested to the point of capacity.

Well today Cardiff Airport is wholly owned by WG (not TBI as it was back in 2002 and later Abertis) and could “easily” close and Bristol airport is, in reality, full (despite having approval for a small incremental expansion – which is being strongly opposed locally). In fact, the land value of Cardiff Airport is probably greater for housing than it is for aviation purposes!

So even with the climate emergency, I think it’s about time to ask a more up to date question – and this has been influenced by my discussion with noted experts in this sector.   

Is there a prospect of developing a consolidated airport in the SW of the UK that is both environmentally and economically superior to the current arrangements resulting  from two poorly located airports at Bristol and Cardiff?

I think there might be. For example:

  • Depending on location, there is the  potential  to secure a high level of surface access using public transport and not car (which is overwhelming the case for Cardiff and Bristol)

  • Reduced number of flights from fewer bigger planes with higher occupancy rates as many services can be consolidated and operated more efficiently at one “better located” airport. This could reduce overall carbon emissions Vs today or any future level of flights served from the current two airports? It is worth noting that even today that most of the top destinations from Bristol and Cardiff are the same

  • Significantly reduce the leakage of air demand to SE England (from both southern Wales and SW England – which is highest rate in UK) by locating in a position with sufficient catchment to attract back services from London/Heathrow

  • In doing so reduce number of car journeys down the M4 to access London based air services

  • More efficient medium and long-haul operations without need to stack over London/SE England (saving time, fuel, etc). Noting it is the twin engine medium & long haul that we might want to focus on? (Vs the short haul which we need to convert to train)

Now I don’t know, and it’s not my priority, but I think if there is a case, then Severnside ought to come back in to play? 

Now that is a “back of a fag packet” analysis.  So, I think it merits a little more resource to properly assess the opportunity, its benefits and its costs. I’d also look again at the Severn Barrage!

[i]          cardiff-airport-strategic-regional-context.pdf (

[ii]          The future of air transport CM 6046 (

[iii]         Private jets: can the super-rich supercharge zero-emission aviation? (

[iv]         Size matters for aircraft fuel efficiency. Just not in the way that you think. – International Council on Clean Transportation (

[v]          Which form of transport has the smallest carbon footprint? – Our World in Data

[vi]         Emissions from planes and ships: facts and figures (infographic) | News | European Parliament (

[vii]         How construction can make the switch to low-carbon concrete – Construction Europe (

3 thoughts on “Cardiff Airport…stick or twist?

  1. I wonder if developing a new Severnside Airport might be the only way the Welsh Government will consider closing Cardiff Airport?
    Who wants to be the only country in the world not invited to the World Countries That Have An International Airport Annual Jamboree in the Seychelles??!! (If such a gathering exists…)
    For this reason I think the politicians will kick the can down the road for a long time yet.


  2. I always thought the Llanwern / Severnside airport (to replace Cardiff and Bristol) was a brilliant idea, and was dismayed that it was abandoned. Mind you, I’m pretty sure I remember reading that Bristol Airport is owned by the Toronto Teachers Pension Fund, so I’m not sure how kindly they would take to the idea!
    Thanks so much for this insightful and compelling blog – let’s hope it rekindles interest in the idea.


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