Last week the Scottish Government took over the ownership of Prestwick Airport following negotiations with previous owner Infratil.
As soon as the deal was done, Glasgow Chamber wrote to Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in her role as Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, raising a number of issues which affect the operation of Glasgow International Airport.
We asked three questions relating to potential conflicts of interest that arise because the Government is now directly involved with the operation of an airport that competes with Glasgow International Airport for passengers.
While that competition was between two commercial operators it was perfectly legitimate to let market choices decide the outcome. However the game has now changed.
Ministers have chosen to intervene and, by that very fact, market forces are no longer the sole arbiter of success or failure. Our three questions are:
- What impact will the Prestwick acquisition have on air route marketing support at Glasgow International Airport?
- How will it affect plans for improving surface access to Glasgow International Airport?
- What impact will it have on the ability of Glasgow International Airport to share commercially confidential information about its strategic intentions with Government officials?
Scottish Government agencies have routinely engaged with the two airports to find ways to support management in securing decisions from airlines considering investment in new routes. This includes such as targeted marketing work in overseas destinations.
It becomes difficult to see how these agencies will now act knowing that Ministers have a 'demanding' task - to directly quote Nicola Sturgeon - in turning around Prestwick's profitability. Will available assistance now be directed to Prestwick at Glasgow's expense?
Equally a study is underway with Transport Scotland to examine options for improving the traffic access to Glasgow Airport, given congestion problems on the M8. There are regular bottlenecks on access roads that are badly interfering with the efficient running of the airport, and the study is intended to find solutions in the absence of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link.
What will be the appetite to provide an appropriate and competitive surface access solution?
Finally, airport management teams are regularly asked to share confidential information with Government agencies as part of overall transport planning for major events or in developing policies relevant to the growth of Scotland's economy.
Can Glasgow Airport be confident how that information might be used in the future, when it could involve negotiations with airlines that are also part of Prestwick Airport's plans?
As things stand there is no explicit national strategy for aviation.
- We don't know what Ministers' preferences are for the growth of airports across Scotland.
- We don't know what importance Ministers place on the relative performance of airports across the Central Belt or what impact that will have on the economic development of our major cities.
- We're not aware of any thoughtful study within Government on the economic development role of our airports in the growth of key industries like whisky, engineering or life sciences.
- We're not aware of any proper assessment of the importance of airports in attracting investment to individual cities and how the location of airports skews where business investments are located.
While all of this is not ideal, it has been bearable as long as airport owners had confidence in the opportunities for growth for each major conurbation. Everything has now changed.
How much confidence can Glasgow Airport's owners have that their interests will be recognised by Ministers explicitly committed to developing a commercial strategy at Prestwick which will compete for at least some of the passenger base in the West of Scotland?
The success of Glasgow Airport as Glasgow's primary business airport is absolutely critical to the growth of the city's economy. There are few more important issues.
We are therefore determined to secure answers from the Scottish Government and to establish what precisely they will now do as entrants into the Central Belt airport market.