In early 2003 British Airways (BA) announced that they would end operations from Plymouth City Airport (PLH). The move put the facilities future under serious threat, following years of dwindling passenger numbers and reduced flying schedules.
But PLH’s owners had a plan to start up their own airline, filling the void following BA’s departure. Sutton Harbour Holdings (SHH) had taken over the running of the facility in 2000 on a long term lease from the City Council and did not want their investment to fail.
So in May 2003 Air Southwest was born.
Three 50-seat Dash 8-300s were purchased from British Airways CitiExpress (BA), and when the flag carrier ceased operations on October 25 2003, Air Southwest launched its flights the following day. The new airline initially concentrated on the vital link to London Gatwick via Newquay, followed by the introduction of a Plymouth – Bristol – Manchester route which was later extended to Jersey.
Air Southwest carried over 200,000 passengers in its first eighteen months, increasing the number of customers flying between Plymouth, Newquay and London Gatwick by 22%. On October 25, 2006 the airline announced it had carried 750,000 passengers since its launch.
In 2005 management decided to remodel as a low-cost carrier. A new hub was opened at Newquay on April 11. Operations commenced with direct flights to Dublin and Leeds Bradford. By April 2006, Air Southwest had also added Manchester via Cardiff and opened another base at Bristol Airport with direct flights to Norwich.
On October 30, 2006 the airline introduced a fifth daily flight from Newquay to London Gatwick.
Flying In To Turbulence
But cracks were already beginning to show in the airlines business model, and on January 14, 2007 the Bristol to Norwich route was discontinued. Further cuts were made when the direct Newquay to Leeds Bradford service was made to route via Bristol from January 16, 2007. Cardiff was then removed from the network on June 24.
But the carrier pushed on and increased its frequencies between Plymouth and Manchester (via Bristol) in January 2007. In October that year, a swathe of new routes from Plymouth to Grenoble, Cork, Dublin, Glasgow and Newcastle; and Newquay to Grenoble, Glasgow and Newcastle were announced. These routes commenced on April 28, 2008 except Grenoble, which launched on December 20, 2008. The Grenoble link was initially planned to be Chambéry, but due to congestion at the former and the request of the local airport authority, the flights were moved to Grenoble.
In 2009 Dublin and London City were added to the network, the latter a resurrection of the former Brymon Airways (BC) route. This was aimed primarily at the business traveller with a twice-daily service which allowed passengers to depart or return via Gatwick. Despite the enormous appeal, the link failed to measure up to expectations and was subsequently closed down in May 2010.
On April 8, 2009 the airline added a new route to Guernsey from Plymouth and in the summer of 2009, Air Southwest commenced a weekly charter flight from Oxford to Jersey on behalf of C.I. Travel.
A major rebranding was undertaken in 2009 to increase market presence. This included a new slogan, ‘Fly Britain’s Local Airline,’ supported by a television campaign on regional channels and a brand new website.
On May 31 2009, Air Southwest adopted the IATA code SZ. It was hoped that this would create opportunities for future development, such as the introduction of interline agreements/codeshares with other airlines and the possibility of using third parties such as travel agents for ticket sales.
The airline had initially operated a buy-on-board service for its passengers. However, from March 2010, as part of its rebranding, a complimentary refreshment service was offered on all flights. On morning departures, passengers could choose a sweet or savoury snack along with a hot or cold beverage. A complimentary bar service was offered on departures after 1 pm.
Other product enhancements included the introduction of a hot towel service, along with a boiled sweet pre-departure. Passengers were given allocated seating when they checked in, and a 20-minute minimum check-in time was introduced for all passengers travelling from Plymouth and Newquay with hand luggage only.
The airline also offered a premium service called Advantage. This service offered the following benefits:
- Free changes to booking up to two hours before flight departure
- Business lounge access
- Provided lotion (for women and men)
- Fast track security
- Free on-board refreshments
- Increased baggage allowance of 30 kg
Sadly the rebranding could not turn around the carrier’s fortunes, and operating profits continued to fall – by £600,000 in 2009 alone. Rising costs and the financial impact caused by the closure of UK airspace caused by the volcanic ash cloud in April 2009 led the owners to put the airline up for sale in May 2010.
Eastern Airways Take Over
In February 2010, Air Southwest formed a strategic alliance with Eastern Airways (T3), at the time the UK’s second-largest regional airline.
Despite rumours that Flybe (BE) and Blue Island Airways (SI) were interested in the ailing airline, in September 2010, it was announced that Eastern Airways would become the unlikely buyer. The sale was completed on December 1, 2010 with the new owners pledging to retain the Air Southwest brand. At the time of the takeover, the airline was operating from 12 airports using five aircraft and employed 135 staff.
Eastern Airways Managing Director Richard Lake said:
“As market leaders in our respective catchments this deal makes perfect sense for Eastern Airways and gives us an even greater reach across the UK. Air Southwest is well regarded by its customers and we want to ensure we retain that loyalty by continuing to offer excellent service and value for money. The integration of the two airlines also enables greater operational flexibility and efficiency as we can look into synergies by bringing both networks and fleets closer together.”
Meanwhile Nigel Godefroy, Chief Executive of Sutton Harbour Group commented:
“Our goal has been to reach an agreement which puts Air Southwest into good hands and I am confident that this deal with Eastern Airways does just that. Being part of a larger airline will bring stability to Air Southwest and that is good news for air travel to and from the far South West, and for Plymouth and Newquay airports.”
Beginning Of The End
On February 1, 2011 the airline dropped its lucrative London Gatwick service citing ongoing losses and competition from Flybe, who ran a similar service from Newquay. The route had been one of the few making a profit for the airline. This was until Gatwick airport raised its landing fees by 20%, instantly wiping out any profit the carrier made.
Air Southwest’s downward spiral continued when the surprise decision was taken to suspend all flights from Plymouth for a month during the mid-summer season and temporarily relocate its operation to Newquay.
A curious arrangement meant that PLH used Plymouth Military Radar, located at HMS Drake, which was unavailable for a month from July 29. The airport attempted to make provisions to use alternative radar services.
But the decision to transfer all operations to Newquay for the duration remained, raising suspicions amongst loyal customers that this decision would likely be permanent.
Sure enough, a week later the airline announced that it would be closing all routes from PLH on September 14. Newquay routes to Glasgow, Guernsey, Jersey and Manchester stopped on the same date. Citing low passenger demand, the carrier went on to say that its Newquay base could also no longer be supported and that services to Aberdeen, Bristol, Cork, Dublin and Leeds Bradford would end by September 30.
The announcement came just ten days after the carrier had transferred ownership of its three remaining Dash 8s to Eastern Airways.
Air Southwest’s final service from Plymouth was a mid-afternoon departure for Glasgow on July 28, bringing an end to this popular little airline and flights from Plymouth City Airport, ending 86 years of municipal aviation from the Devonshire city. ‘Britain’s Local Airline’ final flights from Newquay took place on September 30, 2011.
|G-WOWA||De Havilland Canada DHC-8-300||Ex-British Airways CitiExpress|
|G-WOWB||De Havilland Canada DHC-8-300||Ex-British Airways CitiExpress|
|G-WOWC||De Havilland Canada DHC-8-300||Ex-British Airways CitiExpress|
|G-WOWD||De Havilland Canada DHC-8-300|
|G-WOWE||De Havilland Canada DHC-8-300|
N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.
© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross.