Flying The Red Dragon – The History Of Air Wales

When Cambrian Airways (CS) was incorporated into British Airways (BA) in 1974, Wales lost the closest thing it had had to a flag carrier. 

In the ensuing years, several new “national” carriers were set up but failed to make an impact – more on these soon!

In January 1999, Welsh property tycoon and Chartered Accountant Roy Thomas wanted to change that and established Air Wales (6G).

With several other financial backers, Thomas began to look at sourcing an aircraft and a new base. Captain John Howard Evans would lead the airline.

Initially, 6G was to be based at Pembrey West Wales Airport in Carmarthenshire. A pair of 19-seat Dornier 228s (G-BUXT and G-RGDT) were sourced, and operations were set to commence with a service from Haverfordwest to London (STN) via Pembrey and Cardiff.

Air Wales’ two Dornier 228s pictured at Swansea Airport.

However, management quickly realised that Haverfordwest and Pembrey were unsuited for its operations, which delayed the carrier’s launch. 

Take Off

Instead, Air Wales moved the focus of its launch to the Welsh capital Cardiff (CWL). In January 2000, the airline’s first flight took off bound for Cork, Ireland. 

The airline carried 12,000 passengers in its first six months and looked at adding other UK airports, including Belfast, Stansted and Luton. It also planned to add the welsh airfields of Haverfordwest and Caernarfon to its network as satellite airports to create a pan-Wales air service.

In early 2001 Manchester was added as its second destination. But in August 2001, 6G dropped the route due to a lack of passengers. 

Pictured at MAN is G-RGDT. (Photo: <a href=”http://RuthAS, CC BY 3.0 RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the setback, management was confident about 6G’s future, with Mr Thomas even stating that the airline was considering launching flights from Cardiff to New York. But for the time being, Air Wales focused on its regional operations, adding Dublin and Jersey to its route map. 

Swapping To Swansea

In October 2001, 6G moved its headquarters to Red Dragon House at Swansea Airport (SWS). Mr Thomas had purchased the airport for an undisclosed sum from former owners Martin and Louisa Morgan. Thomas announced that he had big plans for SWS and promised to plough money into the facility to improve services, create jobs and help the economic regeneration of South Wales. 

An 6G promotional photo to coincide with the airlines SWS move.

Speaking at the time he said: “The acquisition of Swansea Airport is of vital strategic importance to Air Wales. It provides us with an ideal operating base from which to continue developing what is Wales’ only airline.”

Initially, 6G served Dublin from SWS thrice daily, with the link described as being ‘vital for Swansea’s economic future.’

Air Wales also looked at employing its first Cabin Crew members in early 2002. The news hit the headlines as the airline stated that the eight ladies it would hire for the role could be no taller than 5ft 3inches. The company had insisted on the height restriction due to the small cabins found on its Dornier aircraft.

Pilot Jeff James poses with newly-graduated flight attendants for Air Wales March 5, 2002 . (Photo by Express Syndication/Getty Images)

The airline had also hoped to expand its offering from Cardiff, launching flights to Edinburgh and Glasgow. However, competition from low-cost carrier bmi baby (WW) led Air Wales to shelve these plans in August 2002. 

ATR’s Arrival

In April 2003, Air Wales welcomed two 48-seat ATR-42-300s to the fleet to replace its Dornier 228s. This coincided with introducing a thrice-daily link to London City (LCY) established from Swansea and routed via Cardiff.

G-TAWE was the first ATR-42 to arrive in April 2003. (Photo: <a href=”http://Balazs Pinter (GFDL 1.2 <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html&gt; or GFDL 1.2 Balazs Pinter via Wikimedia Commons)

It became the first regular air link between Wales and the UK since Cambrian Airways flew between Cardiff and London Heathrow (LHR) in 1967. SWS was last served in 1965 when Morton Air Services (MT) flew to Gatwick (LGW).

From SWS, the airline flew to London City (LCY), Dublin, Cork, Jersey and Amsterdam. However, falling passenger numbers led Air Wales to reduce the number of days it flew from the facility to just three.

G-WLSH spotted at LCY. (Photo: Ian J. McGarrigle)

A Glasgow to Galway service was announced in 2003. However, when Aer Arran (RE) announced its intention to serve the route, Air Wales chose to withdraw.

Meanwhile, the airline’s operations at CWL were going from strength to strength. Routes from the Welsh capital were flown to Aberdeen, Cork, Liverpool (dropped just six weeks after being launched), Newcastle, Norwich, Plymouth and Dublin. 

G-SSEA had been delivered in August 2003 and is pictured here at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. (Photo: Roy Barber via Flickr)

bmi baby Tie-Up

Despite being once rivals, in March 2004, Air Wales and bmi baby announced they would join forces, signing a deal to cooperate on several routes from the Welsh capital. 

The first of a kind agreement for a low-cost airline in the UK would see 6G take over WW’s routes to Glasgow (PIK) and Cork.

Speaking at the time Mr Thomas said: “The move will allow us to further concentrate on developing our portfolio from Cardiff and Swansea. We are currently awaiting the arrival of a fifth ATR aircraft to add to our growing fleet, and we will soon be announcing our new summer schedules which will feature even more low cost and convenient services than ever before, including our popular summer Jersey service.”

A rare photo of all five of the airlines ATR-42s at Swansea Airport.

In October 2004, Air Wales suspended all operations from Swansea after failing to attract 1,000 passengers or more per week to make the routes viable. It was rumoured that Mr Thomas would have continued with operations from SWS but was landed with a bill from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for millions of pounds for essential works at the airport. Thomas had already poured over £3 million of his own money into the airport. 

A spokesperson said, “Despite the huge levels of investment injected into the infrastructure at Swansea Airport and the subsidising of flights by airline and airport owner Roy Thomas, the number of passengers using Air Wales at Swansea Airport does not justify the continued operation of the airline from Swansea. Every effort has been made to provide Swansea with the opportunity of having flights to UK and European destinations, but unfortunately, without passenger support, the service is simply not viable.”

Cardiff Focus

The airline now shifted its focus to Cardiff Airport. It announced that “All efforts will now be concentrated on expanding Air Wales’ ever-growing portfolio of domestic routes within the UK.”

On January 12, 2004 Air Wales took over another former BA route from CWL to Brussels. The twice-daily service was aimed at the business community and was the first route supported by the Welsh Assembly’s route development fund. This had been launched in December 2003 to develop new direct air services to improve accessibility and competitiveness for Welsh businesses, and Air Wales had been the first to benefit. 

Despite launching numerous new routes over the years, the airline frequently dropped them after just a few months if they failed to meet expectations. (Photo: <a href=”http://Alexander Jonsson (GFDL 1.2 <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html&gt; or GFDL 1.2 Alexander Jonsson via Wikimedia Commons)

But just three months after the launch, the route was unexpectedly dropped from the network, once again blaming insufficient demand for the decision.

“Unfortunately, despite our very best efforts, it seems that there just aren’t enough people who want to fly regularly between Wales and Brussels to make this service work,” said Mr Thomas. “Nobody wanted this route to work more than I did, but unfortunately we had to take the responsible decision to stop the service as it simply wasn’t viable.”

The association between Air Wales and bmi baby was extended in October 2004, adding Belfast (BFS), Jersey and later Paris (CDG) to the network.

Turbulence

In 2005 rumours circulated that it would be adding the larger ATR-72 to its fleet. However, all was not well at the airline. An announcement came that the airline had lost over £9 million in 2004. Management stated that this was ‘due to the continuing high levels of start-up costs associated with the development of new routes,’ and they were ‘confident that its trading position would improve.’

But the airline was dealt another blow in December 2005 when bmi baby announced it would be ending its partnership with Air Wales. Instead, WW would launch its own route to Belfast and Glasgow, putting it back into direct competition with 6G. 

A spokesperson for Air Wales at the time announced that the airline was optimistic about its future, ‘A number of new route developments, which will further expand the airline’s service network from Cardiff, are also planned, and will be announced within the next few weeks.’ 

But on April 23, 2006 Air Wales announced that it would cease all scheduled services. Chairman Roy Thomas said they had made the decision “with sadness and regret”. The airline cited “spiralling costs” and “aggressive competition from low-cost airlines” as the main reason for its demise.

Chairman Roy Thomas said they had made the decision to end scheduled flights “with sadness and regret.”

Plans were that charter and cargo operations would continue with a smaller fleet. In November 2006, three of its ATRs were returned to their lessors, leaving it with just two aircraft (G-SSEA and G-CDFF). Rumours also circulated of a possible buyout by another airline, namely Eastern Airways (T3), but these plans never materialised. 

In December 2006, Air Wales was finally wound up. Aviation experts cited the airline’s over-expansion and lack of commitment to some routes as the main reason for its downfall. 

G-WLSH pictured at CWL. (Photo: Shaun Grist)

Despite a run of over six years, the Red Dragon dream of a national airline for Wales was over. 

Fleet List

RegistrationAircraft TypeNotes
G-BUXTDornier 228
G-RGDTDornier 228
G-TAWEATR-42
G-KNNYATR-42
G-WLSHATR-42
G-SSEAATR-42
G-CDFFATR-42

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