Leeds Bradford Airport expansion - the wrong place and the wrong time

With the departure of Leeds Bradford Airport's CEO after only twenty months it is a moment to look at the problems currently facing the airport. The proposed new terminal at Leeds Bradford Airport rightly excites powerful responses for and against and it raises fundamental questions on the prospects for the airport and, indeed, on the future of air travel itself. The airport's timing for its planning application for the terminal is, to say the least, unfortunate. It was not to know that it would drop onto the Leeds City Council's mat just as the impact of the covid pandemic was being realised. And, of course, the pandemic affects much more than planning considerations. The airport's development depends crucially on the region's economic health and on the impact of increasingly draconian measures to counter climate change.

Taken as a package the proposals do not proffer a particularly enticing vista of the future. Leeds Bradford Airport has always suffered from the handicap of being the second choice of site. When in 1930 the Leeds and Bradford municipal authorities decided to establish an aerodrome they took advice from Sir Alan Cobham, the leading expert of the day. He recommended a large flat expanse on a plateau with clear approaches on all sides at Whinmoor on the eastern edge of Leeds. Alas for the future, this was unacceptable to Bradford, and Cobham's second candidate of Yeadon was chosen, equidistant from the two cities. Its accepted drawbacks of altitude and of its proximity to high ground have plagued the airport ever since. Its location has prompted an unusually critical comment on the current planning application from the City Council's own Landscape Team:

This is a very dominant building perched on a high plateau elevated some 31 metres above the surrounding predominantly rural landscape .... It is, by nature of its function, a very shining glass structure facing East and will stand out as an alien urban type feature over a very large expanse.

Planning matters are decided on planning grounds and not on commercial considerations but this trenchant criticism casts doubt on the opinion of Dr Anthony Whiteing, a transport specialist at Leeds University, who believes that the City Council will have no choice but to approve the plans. If this opinion is the case, it makes a mockery of a local council's jurisdiction on plans affecting its environment and its citizens. The legitimate criticisms to the airport's proposals are formidable and Leeds Councillors should accept the objections.

Even looking beyond the pandemic, the airport's future as a viable commercial operation has to be in doubt. Any economic recovery in our region is going to take some years and the vital imperative of the world attaining the International Paris Agreement target on climate change is casting a huge shadow over the future of air travel with its high carbon emissions. There is no doubt that Leeds Bradford Airport must reduce its carbon emissions but its expansion will have the opposite effect. The airport has already recognised its immediate economic problem by planning to make 107 members of its staff - almost a quarter of its personnel - redundant.

Over my twenty-five years of working on electoral projects overseas I originally used the airport regularly to fly to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London to connect with long haul flights to Africa and Asia. One after another all bar the Amsterdam flight disappeared as a commercial destination and I had to go to Manchester, including to get to the Middle East and Caucasus destinations. Being realistic, if Jet2 were to cease to operate from Leeds/Bradford it is hard to see how the airport could survive. All that is left is its tourist traffic and Jet2 has admitted that it has been hit hard by Covid. Ryanair is similarly predicting a 95% fall in traffic in February and March and will have its first loss in twelve years. A further threat on the horizon is the development of Doncaster Sheffield Airport. Once the perverse decision not to go ahead with a link to the nearby railway main line is reversed it will be accessible from Leeds in little over half an hour. The inconvenience of getting to Leeds Bradford by public transport - with or without a shuttle bus to a new rail link - will be vivid.

Over the years since it was privatised the airport management has won few friends. The practical hassles for passengers of drop off charges, the lack of covered footways from the parking and the struggles to get from long-term parking have been regularly voiced in the press and have never been answered. Now, when the airport wants support its managing director appears regularly in media columns. It is too late. It is time for the airport's owners to stop and to take a long hard look at the broad future and to reconsider whether a new terminal, said to cost some £150 million, can conceivably be justified when the prospects for air travel are far from assured.