Blackpool Airport (IATA: BLK. ICAO: EGNH) can trace its history back to October 1909, when the airfield held the UK’s first official public flying meeting on a specially laid out site at Squires Gate, a district in South Shore, Blackpool. Over 200,000 spectators watched legendary French airman Henri Farman perform his unique flying display. In 1910 the Lancashire Aero Club staged a second aviation meeting between July and August, and the first commercial airmail flight took place on August 13, 1910.
By 1911 the site had become a racecourse and was later used as a military hospital during the First World War until 1924.
Operations resumed on April 15, 1935, when Railway Air Services began commercial flights to the Isle of Man (IOM), Manchester (MAN) and Liverpool (LPL). Passengers could then connect from the latter to London and the South West.
The Air Ministry, the department of the UK Government responsible for managing the Royal Air Force (RAF), requisitioned the airfield in 1938. Three runways were laid to support the squadrons based here during World War II, with the new RAF station officially opening on October 23, 1939. The RAF trained 769,673 cadet pilots at Blackpool during the war due to accommodation availability.
Between September 1940 and October 1945, Vickers-Armstrong produced 2,584 Wellington Bombers at Squires Gate following the construction of a shadow aircraft factory in the northeast corner of the airfield. This was taken over in 1951 by the Hawker Aircraft Company, which began building their Hunter jets until 1958, after 374 had been made.
Post War Years
On September 6, 1946, the airport reopened for civilian use, with flights by Isle of Man Air Services resuming to Ronaldsway Airport (IOM). These flights and its fleet of de Havilland Rapides were subsequently taken over by the newly formed British European Airways (BEA) on January 31, 1947.
Independent airline Lancashire Aircraft Corporation (LAC) began operating from Blackpool, adding services to the Channel Islands and Southport. In 1950 they took over BEA’s flights and added more services to Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham, along with North West Airlines, who shared the scheduled route to the IOM.
As jet aircraft became increasingly popular, the airport extended its runway to facilitate these new airliners in 1952. In 1956 a new control tower was built to handle the increasing number of movements from the airfield.
Lancashire Aircraft Corporation became a subsidiary of Silver City Airways (SS) in 1956. The airline continued expanding at BLK with up to 35 weekly rotations to the IOM during the peak 1958 summer season.
The route was considered the airline’s ‘pot of gold,’ especially after the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company suspended its Fleetwood sailings in 1961. LAC responded by adding a virtually half-hourly “ferry service” at weekends using de Havilland Herons and Bristol Wayfarers. During 1961 Blackpool flights to Ronaldsway accounted for 48% of all movements.
Aer Lingus (EI) partnered with Silver City and began flying from the airport in 1958 to Dublin.
At the beginning of 1962, it was announced that Silver City would become part of British United Airways (BUA), a new airline managed by the iconic Sir Freddie Laker.
British United Island Airways (BUIA) was created in 1968 as a subsidiary of BUA to cover all services across the Irish Sea and the Channel Islands. They quickly made BLK a hub for their northwest operations. Year-round flights to IOM and Belfast continued. BUIA also took over the Dublin rotation from EI in 1969 and established an engineering facility.
On January 16, 1980, British Island Airways (the ‘United’ had been dropped in 1970 when British Caledonian (BR) took over BUA was merged with Air Anglia (AQ), Air Wales and Air Westward to form a new independent carrier Air UK (UK).
Sadly the severe recession that crippled the UK in the early 1980s hit the new airline hard, and management decided to close the engineering base and drop many of its routes. Dublin and Belfast were cut, although the recently formed Spacegrand Aviation promptly took these over. The once-booming BLK – IOM route was also slashed to just once daily, and the airport suffered a significant drop in passenger numbers.
In 1982 Air UK joined forces with British Midland (BD) to create Manx Airlines (JE), which immediately took over the Belfast and IOM routes and added a seasonal rotation to Jersey. In the summer of 1983, Spacegrand added a thrice daily IOM flight to its network in direct competition with Manx, who had cut the route to a daily flight.
Manx Airlines had put its newly delivered Fokker F27 on the route believing that passengers would prefer the space and comfort of a larger aircraft. They were wrong. Passengers wanted the frequency that Spacegrand offered. JE subsequently leased an 8-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain to increase frequency to four times daily. The decision proved popular, and a year later, JE upgraded the service to a DHC-6 Twin Otter provided by Manx partner Loganair (LM), who would also occasionally operate the Belfast route.
Spacegrand was eventually merged with Jersey European Airways (JY) in 1985, and the newly formed airline continued to operate from Blackpool for several years.
On March 26, 1984, Genair, a small independent airline that provided feeder services for British Caledonian under the “Commuter” brand, extended its London Gatwick to Liverpool service to Blackpool. Sadly the carrier was placed into administration in July 1984 and dropped the route.
Throughout the years, the airport has also welcomed various charter carriers from across the UK and Europe operating holiday flights and brought competitors for the various dance competitions held at the iconic Blackpool Tower Ballroom.
To help handle these charters, a new terminal was opened in 1995 next to the old wooden building, which was demolished in 1996.
In 2005 Jet2 (LS) became the first major low-cost carrier to base an aircraft at Blackpool, creating 50 new jobs and boosting passenger numbers.
The airline initially launched flights with two Boeing 737-300s to Alicante, Amsterdam, Belfast, Faro, Malaga, Murcia, Prague and Tenerife South. They would also offer a seasonal link to Jersey.
Competition immediately came from Monarch Airlines (ZB), who commenced a thrice-weekly route to Malaga in the summer of 2005. The service lasted just a year, with the carrier blaming low passenger numbers and increased competition from Jet2.
In 2007, LS cancelled the Prague and Amsterdam services, citing low passenger numbers. Despite this, 2007 was when the airport was at its peak, handling more than half a million passengers.
On July 18, 2008, the Blackpool Gazette announced that Jet2 planned to suspend its daily link to Belfast International for the winter. A dip in passenger numbers and the rising oil price had taken their toll on the service. The route was restored in March 2009 and lasted until the end of the summer 2013 season, when LS dropped it permanently.
Jet2’s relationship with the then-owners of Blackpool Airport was sometimes difficult. The airport had been arguing over the timings of a number of the airline’s flights, claiming that late-night and early-morning departures were costly and unsustainable, forcing the airfield to operate at a loss.
Matters came to a head in October 2010 when two flights were forced to divert to Manchester late one evening after management closed the facility. The airport had also threatened to prevent Jet2 from operating outside its published 7 am to 9 pm opening hours. A court case ensued, which Jet2 eventually won, allowing operations to continue as they had done previously.
In June 2012, the airline announced plans to launch Dalaman and Ibiza in May 2013, followed by Lanzarote a week later. This coincided with the carrier revealing they would upgrade one of their Boeing 737-300s to a larger -800 series, providing extra capacity on its bucket and spade routes. On May 21, 2014, Menorca was added to the schedule, followed by Reus a year later.
Home Grown Talent
Manx Airlines became part of BA Connect (BA) in February 2006. After a series of mergers and name changes, the “new” airline looked to remodel itself as a low-cost carrier. Part of this move meant unprofitable routes were dropped, including all services from BLK.
Enter British North West Airlines (W9), which stepped in with a BAe Jetstream 31 to fill the gap on the IOM and Belfast City rotations, albeit on a relatively short-lived basis.
Following the airline’s demise, flights to the IOM were taken over by Citywing, flying up to three times a day, with an onward connection to Belfast City. Citywing brought low fares to these routes, and passenger numbers increased in January 2007.
With passenger numbers rising, another new carrier, operating as Jetstream Express (JX), introduced flights in 2007 to Belfast City, Aberdeen and Southampton. Two Jetstream 31s were based at the airport to support the operation. However, the services ended in June 2007 as the routes had yet to prove viable.
Controversial Airport Development Fee
In 2008 infrastructure group Balfour Beatty, who already owned Exeter and Londonderry airports, purchased a 95% stake in BLK from previous owners CityHopper Airports LTD for £14 million. The previous owners, who had also run Wolverhampton Airport and Biella Airport in Italy, purchased the share from Blackpool Council, who retained the remaining 5%.
However, the new owners looked to recoup some of their costs and decided to implement a £10 fee for all departing passengers over 16 in January 2009. The “Airport Development Fee” was a controversial decision, with many passengers angry at the additional charge, paid at a ticket machine in the terminal with proof of payment needed to pass through security.
Speaking of the fee, Sue Kendrick from the airport said: ”We are struggling financially, we’ve not made a secret of that, and without that support of the fee we could be in a different situation.”
One particularly unhappy airline was Ryanair (FR) which announced on November 25, 2008, that they would withdraw all flights from January 5, 2009. The carrier had operated from BLK since May 2003 with routes to Dublin (DUB), London Stansted (STN) and Girona (GRO), carrying more than 1.3 million passengers.
Aer Arran (RE), operating under the Aer Lingus Regional banner, soon stepped in to replace FR on the DUB rotation until it was axed in 2014.
The new owners set to work at redeveloping the airfield. Several changes were implemented during 2011, including redeveloping some taxiways and relocating the airport’s fire services to a more central position from its previous location, north of the airport fuel farm.
Danish Air Transport (DX) also announced plans to launch a new twice-weekly route to Albert – Picardie Airport (BYF) in northern France in April 2012. Sadly the flights were cancelled before the launch.
Despite the additional fee set to “save the airport,” in August 2014, Balfour Beatty revealed they would put Blackpool up for sale. It had “decided to sell its operating interests in the site as part of a wider decision to sell all its interests in regional airports,” the Blackpool Gazette reported.
But on October 7, it was announced that the airport would close, with £34 million in debt and the loss of 100 jobs. Owners blamed falling passenger numbers and its poor contract with the airport’s primary carrier Jet2.
Jet2 had been performing well since its launch, with rumours circulating of new routes and a third-based aircraft. Sadly any plans the airline had were quashed, and the carrier was forced to move its 26 rotations per week to Manchester from October 9, 2014.
Two years after the closure, Jet2’s then-CEO Philip Meeson told the Blackpool Gazette that they had no plans to return even if Blackpool was to restore commercial flights: “If I’m realistic, I don’t think the door will re-open, sadly. That’s the realism I think. We did not want to leave. We were very disappointed to leave. But now we’re gone, we’re gone. We’re very, very sorry, we’re very disappointed it happened.”
The final service was operated by Citywing, with flight V9117 departing to the Isle of Man on October 15, 2014.
A month later, BLK was purchased by Squires Gate Airport Operations, a company established by the airport’s previous owner Balfour Beatty.
A new enterprise zone was announced in March 2015 to be created using some of the airfield and the adjoining land.
Flights recommenced with Citywing to IOM and Belfast (BHD) with a dedicated facility for the airline’s operations opening in the former Jet2 offices. These housed a check-in desk, reception lounge, toilet facilities, security and a small departure lounge.
This move allowed the demolition of the old terminal building, which was completed in early 2016 despite protests from residents. A new Energy College was built on the former site as part of the renewable energy sector of Blackpool and Fylde College.
The local council re-purchased the facility in September 2017 for £4.25 million and has since steadily developed its general and private aviation business. Since July 2018, £1 million has been invested, including hiring new staff, implementing an Instrument Landing System (ILS) and adding taxiway lighting. Sadly passenger flights remain non-existent.
In April 2018, two general aviation pilots based at Blackpool, Bradley Gosney and Paul Vernon, announced plans to create a new airline to serve destinations from the North West airfield across the UK and Ireland. InterCity Airways planned to launch services using another carrier’s Air Operator Certificate (AOC) before acquiring its own once the airline became more established.
Speaking to ukaviation.news Gosney said: “We are very keen and committed to reintroducing flights from Blackpool Airport to destinations across the UK & Ireland, many of the destinations we have chosen have options for onward travel further afield with other airlines, including an option to fly onto the USA. We believe that Blackpool Airport is an ideal location for our airline as its small, friendly and convenient for passengers. Blackpool is also the UK’s most popular tourist destination with over 18 million tourists visiting the resort every year.”
Plans were made to launch flights by the end of 2018, initially to IOM using a single Saab 340, with talks well underway to lease the turboprop. There was much support from the local community as local residents and ‘Save Blackpool Airport’ campaigner Paul Webster explained: “Blackpool Airport is a great facility that has been neglected for many years by the former owners. The airport used to provide excellent operations all over Europe and was very popular with Blackpool residents as well as many others from the surrounding area. While we may not get Jet2 back it’s very encouraging to see InterCity trying to start operations. They will do well and have a lot of support from the Save Blackpool Airport Group as well as the local businesses and people.” Sadly the carrier never got off the ground.
The ‘Save Blackpool Airport’ group continued to pressure local politicians and the council to look at re-instating passenger flights, backed by Blackpool South MP Scott Benton. The group started a petition, and over 8,000 signatures were added.
But in July 2020, councillors dealt a massive blow to the plans after voting against supporting the idea of relaunching commercial services. Councillor Ivan Taylor explained: “This council is not in a position to use two million pounds of public money again, pumping money into something like this. We need every bit of cash we have, to support elderly people, children and families. Subsidising people going on their fun trips to Tenerife or elsewhere is not within our possibilities, and all the experts have told us it will take a £50 million investment to bring it up to scratch.”
So, for now at least, commercial flights remain a pipe dream for those who would love to see Blackpool Airport return to its former glory. But with COVID-19 crippling the aviation industry worldwide, it seems very unlikely that regular passenger flights will return soon.
What are your memories of Blackpool Airport? Tell us in the comments below.
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