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Row sparks over call for £600k airport 'sweetener'

Kent International Airport, Manston
Kent International Airport, Manston

Arrivals at Manston Airport

by political editor Paul Francis

The government has been urged to offer a £600,000 "sweetener" to an unnamed commercial airline planning a new daily service from Manston airport, it has emerged.

The airport operator Infratil is in advanced confidential talks with an unidentified airline which has plans for a twice-daily service to an unnamed European destination from next April.

Now it has been revealed Kent County Council and operators Infratil pressed for a taxpayers’ handout to underwrite the costs of the service for three years, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

They show that in an ultimately unsuccessful bid for a share of Regional Growth Fund money from the government, KCC and Infratil argued the six-figure subsidy was needed as the potential new operator faced a significant financial risk setting up the service.

manston’s failed bids for public cash

manston has twice before had public money invested in airline ventures which both failed.

in 2005, kcc ploughed £100,000 into a service operated by eujet, which went into administration and then in 2007, kcc then spent nearly £300,000 in 2007 in an unsuccessful venture to run weekly charter flights from manston to virginia in the usa.

as part of its bid totalling £10.8m, the government was asked to support a request for £7.7m to build the thanet parkway station and £2m to improve journey times between ramsgate and london.

Infratil has defended the idea in the face of criticism by opponents of the expansion of Manston, who said it would be wrong to use public to support a commercial airline.

A spokesman for Manston said: "We are always in discussions with airlines and we always work with partners, such as Kent County Council, to put together the strongest possible case to attract new carriers and services."

"We believe using public money to underwrite the initial running costs of any new air service is indeed excellent value for the public purse, as studies have shown that the biggest beneficiary is the economy of the community surrounding the airport."

Consultants commissioned by KCC to examine the impact of the new service said just 23 jobs would be created at the airport with a further estimated 133 indirect jobs over eight years across east Kent.

The bid documents show the government was also urged to provide a further £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash to meet the costs of the airport jobs.

In total, the consultants estimated theeast Kent economy would benefit by £995,000 a year.

Opponents of plans for night flights from Manston said the documents raised questions the airport’s viability.

Campaigner Phil Rose said: "In public, and in the press, Manston says that 2.2 million passengers equals over 2,000 jobs.

Click here to get our political editor Paul's view

"In KCC’s bid document, three-quarters of a million passengers equals two dozen jobs.

"The sums just don’t add up - this is the maths of the madhouse."

He added: "Manston recently told the world that night flights were critical to the success of the airport.

"Now the bid document says an unidentified operator is critical to their success."

KCC leader Cllr Paul Carter said: "We know that every million passenger movements creates 1,000 jobs.

"Until you can start to build momentum at Manston, you will not create those jobs."

He had made it very clear that he had not wanted KCC money used to underwrite any new service, he added.

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