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Ryanair in talks about running flights from Manston airport if it reopens as a cargo airport

Budget airline Ryanair is in talks about running flights from Manston if the airport is reopened, says the firm behind the bid.

The low-cost Irish carrier is said to have expressed interest in basing three or four passenger planes at the Thanet site should a controversial bid to relaunch it as a cargo airport be successful.

RiverOak Strategic Partnerships – the company behind the plans – also hopes Dutch airline KLM will return to run the twice-daily service to Amsterdam it offered before Manston’s closure in 2014.

Manston airport
Manston airport

But RiverOak first needs to win permission from the Secretary of State for Transport to force the current landowners, Stone Hill Park, to sell it the site.

RiverOak managing director Tony Freudmann says the firm has been in discussions with Ryanair “on and off” for four years.

“It goes back a long way,” he said. “It’s no secret that they have no presence south of the Thames, save for a few flights at Gatwick.

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“They have huge plans to expand. They fly 125 million passengers a year at the moment and they want 200 million by 2024.

“Some of that increase will come from south east England, and Manston would be the logical place.

“But it’s not going to be a hub - it’s going to be two, three or four planes based overnight, and that would give us a solid passenger base.

“We would typically see them doing a morning rotation down to somewhere like southern Portugal and coming back, and then maybe a midday rotation up to Edinburgh and coming back and then a third rotation maybe to Sicily and then coming back.

“That’s roughly how it would work, but they’re the experts and they’ll decide where they’ll go.

“We’d be happy to have three planes, and they’ve said that they would be interested in doing that. It would equate to about one million or 1.25 million passengers a year.”

Mr Freudmann is also confident of convincing KLM to return to offer flights to Schiphol in Amsterdam, Europe’s busiest passenger airport.

Tony Freudmann
Tony Freudmann

“With KLM, things were progressing well and I think they will come back,” he said.

“KLM also have a business-class operation and it is almost certain we would want to reinstate a business lounge – there would be a lot of business travel.

“It gives people a connection the Amsterdam hub and then that means they can get anywhere in the world without having to go to Heathrow.”

KLM was asked for a comment but did not respond, while Ryanair said: "While we are always interested in new routes, we don't comment on rumour or speculation."

Mr Freudmann adds it is “almost certain” a complete rebuild of the passenger terminal would be needed.

A massive expansion would also be required on the freight side, with the current two stands for cargo planes increased to more than 20 to provide the flexibility needed when several flights arrive at once.

But the whole project is reliant on RiverOak’s bid for a Development Consent Order (DCO) being accepted by the Secretary of State.

If successful, it would allow RiverOak to compulsory purchase the airport land from Stone Hill, which wants to build 4,000 homes on the site.

A public consultation on the proposals ends tomorrow, with RiverOak hoping to submit its DCO application next month.

While a reopened Manston would likely play host to passenger airlines, its main focus will be on freight services, Mr Freudmann says.

But unlike successful cargo airports like East Midlands – which sees more than 100 night-time departures a week - he refutes claims noisy cargo carriers will be landing and taking off at Manston at all hours of the day.

He says RiverOak’s plan is to base its business on operators with different needs.
“Manston would be primarily a cargo hub, but we do not need night flights for cargo,” he said.

“Most big freighters fly at night because they cannot do so during the day. There are no suitable daytime slots so they get into night-time slots or into Europe at places like Liege.

“We would be looking at what Amazon are doing with their own airline. They have based themselves at Cincinatti and depart early in the morning, return late and don’t fly at night.”

At the moment, much of Britain’s air freight is carried in the belly of passenger flights, but

Mr Freudmann says this is not a sign of a global trend that could affect Manston’s profitability.

He says a lack of available slots at airports like Heathrow means there is potential for cargo growth.

“It is not a global trend that there is more belly cargo – it’s 78% in the UK, but in the rest of the world it’s 40% to 45%, because it’s down to a lack of capacity in the UK.,” he said.

“If you want to send something by air from China to the UK there’s no other way than through the belly. The location for Manston serves it perfectly. We are in relatively uncluttered airspace.”

RiverOak has attracted criticism for not proposing a limit on the number of night flights at Manston, but Mr Freudmann says it is “looking again” at the issue.

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