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Manston Airport - 10 years on since Ann Gloag closed the former Ministry of Defence site in Thanet, will passenger flights ever take off from there again?

There is a video on YouTube which dates back to 2013. In it, Manston Airport is billed as “your gateway to the world”.

The advert sees a young family avoid the queues on the M25 as they park the family car just yards from the entrance, before entering the brightly-lit, colourful terminal. They relax in the café and duty-free shop before boarding the plane; laughing and smiling every step of the way.

The question on many lips now is - will we ever get an opportunity again?

Because today marks the 10th anniversary of the airport’s closure. Ten years in which its future has been loudly debated across Thanet and further afield. From homes to public meetings to courtrooms - everyone, it seems, has a view. It has been so politically contentious it has dethroned ruling parties at Thanet District Council and drawn dividing lines amid the local population.

Will it be revived as a passenger terminal? Will it become a thriving cargo hub? Will it be transformed into houses? Every possibility has been in pole position at some stage over the last decade.

The only thing we know, with absolute certainty, is that its future continues to remain uncertain. Because, legal wrangles aside, the core question which will define whether it lives or dies is: “Can it make the sums add up?”

Because if there is one thing we have learned from Manston’s commercial life over the last 25 years, it is that just when you think the future looks bright, it has a habit of turning sour.

KLM took off from Manston a year before the airport closed
KLM took off from Manston a year before the airport closed

But back to that advert.

It promoted KLM’s daily flights to Schiphol - the Dutch airport hub - seen by many as a new beginning for the airport. The 50-minute flight offered ease and convenience to link with a terminal which could then serve you up passage to pretty much any global destination.

The advert is rather charming - albeit now something of a relic on YouTube - and if you lived in east Kent, rather compelling.

But then that may lie at the very heart of why Manston Airport - as a commercial passenger terminal - never really lived up to its potential. If, indeed, the potential was ever really there. Why go to Manston when Stansted and Gatwick are both so close?

Speak to some of the older generation in Thanet and they’ll regale you with stories of how they’d turn up early for flights only for staff at the airport to tell them to head home and that they’d ring them to let them know when the plane was approaching and they should turn up.

Tony Freudmann of Manston Airport owners RiverOak
Tony Freudmann of Manston Airport owners RiverOak

“It very much had the feeling,” says Tony Freudmann, the man behind the current plans to bring it back to life and who worked at the site at the dawn of the century, “of being a local airport.

“The staff were all local and many had been working there for many years.

“Lots of local people used it because it was great for them being so close. They knew the staff and it was all very friendly. It wasn’t just Kent travellers either - we had people coming down from the London boroughs like Bromley and Bexley and south London. It was quicker for them to drive down to Manston rather than go down the M23 to Gatwick.”

But fond memories are - as our coastal towns will be only too quick to point out - not necessarily the bedrock upon which to build future prosperity. Things change - demands ebb and flow. And passenger flights are not the answer Manston is looking to right now.

The first KLM flight to Amsterdam reached for the skies on April 2, 2013. Less than a year later - on May 15, 2014 - it was a rather bumpy landing; the airport closed, staff laid-off and all flights grounded.

The lounge in Manston Airport in 1990
The lounge in Manston Airport in 1990

KLM wasn’t to blame - in fact, its service was pretty popular - but it was the only passenger service operating.

Just six months before, Ann Gloag - the Scottish businesswoman who was co-founder of the Stagecoach empire - had acquired the site for the princely total of £1.

Hopes were high she’d use her influence and business acumen to transform the site. She certainly promised as much.

“I believe,” she said after penning the deal, “there is real potential for growth that has not been fully captured.”

Gloag had promised to bring low-cost airlines in and fly happy holidaymakers out.

Ann Gloag bought Manston for £1. Picture: SWNS
Ann Gloag bought Manston for £1. Picture: SWNS

But she baulked - as well she might - at the apparent £10,000 loss every day the airport was making. And when she failed to engage the likes of Ryanair or Easyjet to add Manston to their list of options, she decided the best course of action was to close it down. And everyone else to wonder about the standard of her due diligence. That real potential for growth, she had mentioned, must have jetted off when she wasn’t looking.

On the day the final planes took off, crowds gathered to protest at the decision - and wave-off the departing aircraft. Sir Roger Gale - the veteran North Thanet MP who has been one of the airport’s staunchest supporters over the years - was among them and not best pleased.

“Ann Gloag,” he recalls, “telephoned me at the House of Commons, told me she’d bought the airport and that she was going to put millions of pounds into it and she was giving it two years to try and turn it around.

“Within months she’d closed it. That was disgraceful behaviour.”

Just weeks later, and in a bid to recoup some of those losses, she auctioned off anything and everything from inside its buildings. The consequence is that what sits there today is, effectively, a host of structures which are nothing more than shells - the bulk of which are long past their use-by dates.

As a Kent County Council report, published a year after the shutters went up, spelt out: “Since the Ministry of Defence sold RAF Manston in 1998, the airport has never made a profit and has never delivered on its promise of jobs for the area. When the airport closed on May 15, 2014, 144 people were employed there.”

And many of those, it is believed, were part-time.

Manston Airport’s roots lie in its role with the Ministry of Defence. But that association ended as the 20th century drew to an end.

Even supersonic jet Concorde was a visitor to Manston in 1992
Even supersonic jet Concorde was a visitor to Manston in 1992

Prior to the severing of its military purpose - the US Air Force was based there for many years before pulling out in the 1960s - it had been what is known as a civil enclave. In other words, it allowed a certain number of commercial passenger flights to operate alongside the military machines.

Given the rather grand title of Kent International Airport in 1989, passengers had long been able to jet out to a number of destinations. Flights to the likes of Crete, the former Yugoslavian resorts, Cyprus and Spain proved popular.

But once fully privatised in 1999 when the MoD pulled out - it was bought for £4.75m by a company called Wiggins Group (which, in 2004, morphed into Planestation) - it faced a crossroads.

Explains Tony Freudmann, who worked as operations director at the airport at the time: “From 1999 until 2005 there was a mixture of passengers and cargo. The freight was mainly perishables from east Africa.

“And that came in in considerable quantities. It was seasonal, but there was between 40-50,000 tonnes a year.

Exterior of the airport building as it is today
Exterior of the airport building as it is today

“The problem was there was a lack of investment. So the equipment, the facilities the staff had, were very limited and the only development was a border inspection post which was installed in 2001, I think, to enable the airport to import goods that needed to be inspected - such as meat, particularly poultry, that kind of thing, and fish.

“That had started to work. But then there were some passenger flights too. There was a regular summer service to Jersey, I remember, which was very popular. And at various times there were package tour operators operating out of Manston.

“They’d be sold out but the problem was the airport didn't make enough money from them because the planes were not based at Manston. So they’d fly in, pick up its passengers, fly to somewhere and then we wouldn't see it again.”

The trick with the planes being based there is all the necessary infrastructure - and charges it can levy - which come with it. Not to mention the job opportunities.

The truth was that Planestation bet the house of surfing the new wave of budget airline travel. It acquired a 30% stake in the EUjet airline early in 2004 and the remainder of the shares later that same year.

An EUjet takes off from Manston
An EUjet takes off from Manston

And you can guess where this is going.

As that KCC report explained: “The Wiggins Group, with its start-up low-cost carrier EUjet, launched scheduled flights to 21 destinations in Europe in 2004 but collapsed into administration in the summer of 2005 leaving 5,400 passengers stranded. Its fleet of five 108-seat Fokker 100 jets were repossessed.”

The smarter money - says Tony Freudmann - should have gone on developing the cargo operation.

He told KentOnline: “EUject operated for about 10 months and they flew getting on for half a million passengers to various destinations in southern Europe, to Ireland, the north of England and Scotland. A lot of locals still speak about it with great affection. But it lost so much money.

“Getting passengers, at the time, was seen as the sexy thing to do; so there was this huge push to get them.

Departure lounge at Manston Airport - once a popular passenger terminal
Departure lounge at Manston Airport - once a popular passenger terminal

“But the problem was the low-cost carriers were not as big then as they are now and they were fixed up quite nicely in Gatwick and Stansted. They weren't terribly interested in coming to Manston.

“In the meantime, all the cargo traffic came in almost without being marketed. A number of freight-forwarders noticed Manston had a long runway, so all these huge freighters could land and, because it wasn’t busy, be turned around in an hour or less.

“They could bring a load of perishables that could be on a truck within an hour and at the supermarket warehouse two hours later - it was very efficient for them.

“My small part in this was to say to the directors and investors back then that we were concentrating on the wrong thing here. This should be a cargo airport. Nobody wanted to listen.

“If they're invested in the cargo facilities, I think it would have made a huge difference.”

Many rooms at the airport are in a poor state of repair
Many rooms at the airport are in a poor state of repair

But then, of course, he would say that. Because the focus going forward for Manston Airport - should it leap the latest legal hurdle in its way (an appeal to the decision to give it the green light - a decision on which is due within the coming weeks) - is to have cargo front and centre. More of which in a moment.

Planestation’s collapse saw Infrantil - a successful New Zealand-based operator which also acquired Prestwick Airport on Scotland’s west coast - buy the site from administrators in 2005. It paid £17m.

It too had high hopes. It spoke of increasing passenger numbers to three million, building a new passenger terminal and boosting cargo business too. It also spoke of growth delivering thousands of jobs.

But, explains the KCC report, it didn’t deliver: “In 2012, Infratil announced that Manston and Prestwick airports were for sale. In each year that Infratil owned Manston it incurred losses of more than £3m per annum and wrote off the purchase price of £17m.

“Similarly, its ambitious plan to grow freight traffic failed.”

The abandoned desks in the control tower of Manston Airport
The abandoned desks in the control tower of Manston Airport

Which will give pause for thought when it comes to its new plans.

The big difference though, as RiverOak, the company which Tony Freudmann fronts and which is driving forward the airport’s revival proposal, is investment. And lots of it.

There are investors - so far unnamed - ready to sink £800m into the site with the focus on cargo.

“The investment is the likes of which,” adds Tory MP Sir Roger Gale, “east Kent has never seen before. I’ve met these investors. They’re real. The opportunities are massive and we should be seizing them.”

The freight demand is there, Freudmann insists.

However, if you are expecting passenger flights to start arriving any time soon, you will need to be patient.

Even if given the green light today, the scale of work on the site is significant.

Pretty much every building will be pulled down while extensive new terminal and cargo-handling facilities are constructed. The runway needs resurfacing, while extensive remodelling of connecting roads will be a priority too. Sir Roger Gale estimates around a year of planning and contract awards before work gets fully under way.

Some 18 months to two years of construction will, if all goes to plan, see the first cargo planes start arriving.

Then it’s got to demonstrate that it works - that it can do what no commercial operator at Manston has so far achieved and make a profit. Or, at least, be in a position where that situation is foreseeable rather than simply longed-for (most new operations make losses at first due to start-up costs).

Not to mention the installation of all the modern-day trappings of air travel - which means extensive security and customs areas.

The site of Manston Airport. Picture: Chris Davey
The site of Manston Airport. Picture: Chris Davey

If you thought you could be dropped off outside the terminal building to catch a flight - then think again. Current regulations will make that something which will not be possible.

“Once we're operational,” adds Mr Freudmann, who left Planestation just prior to its implosion, “if the likes of Ryanair or EasyJet come to us and say we'd like to fly out of your airport and we’re going to base two or three aircraft there, then we can construct a passenger terminal and have them running out of there probably in less than 12 months.”

Manston’s key opportunity, says the RiverOak director, is early morning flights.

He explains: “They have to get their planes in the air between 6-7am because as soon as they cross the Channel they lose an hour. There really aren't any more slots at the major airports in the South East. It is in their interests to base two or three aircraft at Manston. That's that's the working assumption we've made.

“And because they've got new aircraft being delivered all the time, these aircraft are arriving and they've got to place them somewhere.”

Trevor Cartner and Chris Musgrave owned the site for a short while
Trevor Cartner and Chris Musgrave owned the site for a short while

But before you start packing your suitcase, Manston still has that outstanding Court of Appeal judgement pending. The latest appeal to the government’s approval of the airport, brought by Ramsgate resident Jenny Dawes - her legal bills are crowdfunded - was heard on April 24. The verdict is expected within the coming weeks.

If it is thrown out, then it should be all systems go. But then we’ve thought that before with Manston.

Sir Roger Gale believes the string of judicial reviews which have prevented the airport pushing ahead with its plans should be prevented.

“The judicial review process has been abused over and over again,” he says, “and this or a future law minister is going to have to take this in hand and deal with it.

“It is absolutely right for people to be able to challenge unlawful or bad decisions. But it is equally wrong to use the law to over and over again frustrate the will of the people. Which is what has happened here.”

A decade on, and the site today remains tatty and overgrown. After Ann Gloag had finished her firesale of the site, she sold to property developers Chris Cartner and Trevor Musgrave - the duo behind the Discovery Park’s revival after Pfizer’s decision to withdraw the bulk of its activities at the Sandwich site.

Gloag kept a 20% stake, but the plans were to turn it into a blend of residential, industrial and leisure units. But in 2019, as those plans faced opposition, they sold the site to RiverOak for £16.5m. Which probably gave Ms Gloag a decent return on that £1 investment of hers. She may be the first to turn a profit on Manston.

There’s little doubt that should it finally deliver - on what will surely be its last chance to prove itself a commercial success - it will bring jobs, money and, perhaps most importantly aspiration, to many in Thanet. The question still being asked, all these years later, is will it get the opportunity?

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