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For some breathtaking video footage of an Air Southwest aircraft over the beautiful North Cornwall coast, take a look at the video below!
Devon and Cornwall have an enduring appeal - for those who live here, for those who visit, and for those who do business in the region.
However, one of the obstacles to economic growth and prosperity for the region has been its perceived poor accessibility. Nowhere in the UK is actually that far from anywhere else, but tales of marathon childhood journeys by car for family holidays in the region abound.
In our earlier feature on Brymon Airways, we record the contribution made by that small but pioneering regional airline in improving accessibility for over thirty years. In 2003, however, things briefly looked like taking a turn for the worse when the air routes previously operated by Brymon, and which then became part of British Airways' regional operations, were axed.
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Air Southwest - Devon and Cornwall's own airline, 2003-2011
Air Southwest was a pioneering UK regional airline, set up to restore air services from Plymouth and Newquay following the withdrawal of British Airways. This special feature records the history of this well-loved little airline.
For the Sutton Harbour Group, owners of Plymouth Airport, this was a particular blow, as the airport would suffer the loss of most of its air routes, rendering the facility unviable. Sutton Harbour initially approached other airlines in order to encourage replacement services to and from Plymouth, but quickly concluded that the most effective way of preserving the air links from Plymouth would be to start its own airline - and so it was that on the 26th October 2003 Sutton Harbour Group's Air Southwest took to the skies (the day after BA stopped its flights from the region).
The first flight took place on a cold but clear and crisp autumn morning, from Plymouth via Newquay to London Gatwick. This four-times daily service linking Plymouth and Newquay with London was an overnight success, with Air Southwest reporting passenger numbers up by a quarter compared with the same service previously flown by British Airways.
Starting with just two 50-seat Dash 8 aircraft (one for the Gatwick route, and one as a "backup") the airline soon added new routes from both Plymouth and Newquay. The expansion from Plymouth was perhaps to be expected, as it was home city to both the airline and its Sutton Harbour Group parent. A bigger surprise was the extent to which the airline was also able to grow from Newquay, on the back of a massive increase in interest in Cornwall as a quality tourism destination. Within a few years the airline had grown its fleet to five aircraft, and was serving Plymouth, Newquay, Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cork, Dublin, Jersey and Guernsey.
Of course not everything was a success. Flights from Cardiff to Manchester and Newquay failed to gain sufficient support, and likewise flights from Bristol to Norwich where the airline found it was able fill planes, but that passengers were not prepared to pay a sufficient premium over road and rail alternatives. The airline also tried flights from Plymouth and Newquay to London City Airport, but whilst the new service was popular with business people from Devon and Cornwall, there wasn't sufficient traffic from the capital heading South West to create a viable operation in the face of notoriously high landing fees at the City airport.
Air Southwest's strength at Newquay Airport, where it accounted for the majority of the airport's services, in many ways also turned out to be its Achille's heel. Other airlines, including bmiBaby, Flybe, Jet2 and even, briefly, British Airways, saw the airline's growth at the Cornish airport and were tempted to start their own services in order to pick up a "slice of the action". Air Southwest saw new competition emerge on its routes to Manchester, Leeds and, most damagingly, London Gatwick. In 2009 Flybe launched a head-to-head competing service on the Newquay-Gatwick route, directly mirroring Air Southwest's key flight times, at very low prices. This, coupled with ever-increasing costs of landing at Gatwick, led to Air Southwest's most lucrative service becoming unprofitable overnight, and it was eventually withdrawn.
With the airline having gone from being significantly profitable, to significantly loss-making, the Sutton Harbour Group looked for disposal options, and in 2010 completed a deal to sell the airline to fellow UK regional operator Eastern Airways. Some intial changes were made to take advantage of network synergies between Air Southwest and Eastern, and Air Southwest was also able to benefit from Eastern's presence on the worldwide distribution systems used by travel agents and corporate travel bookers. However, with little prospect of achieving profitability on its South West routes, Eastern announced in 2011 that it was to close Air Southwest, with the last flight taking place on 14th September 2011.
The closure of Air Southwest was a huge blow to its staff, many of whom had been with the airline since its inception, and to the businesses in the region for whom the air links it provided were so essential. It also dealt a massive blow to Plymouth City Airport, which now found itself with no scheduled flights whatsoever. Despite a high-profile local campaign, including widespread use of social media channels, the closure of Plymouth City Airport followed quickly, with the airport closing its doors for the last time on Friday 23rd December 2011.
Whilst Air Southwest's history was relatively short, its achievements during this time were none-the-less remarkable. Launched from a blank sheet of paper, by a parent group with no previous experience in airlines, building an initially profitable network of services, being responsible for most of the strong growth of Newquay Airport, and gaining a loyal local following and strong industry reputation, in one of the most competitive sectors around. With Plymouth City Airport's runways already gathering weeds, and with the airport land earmarked for property development, the prospect of Plymouth ever having air services again in the future seems remote. Newquay Airport has fared better, with at least some of the ex-Air Southwest routes being picked up by other airlines - although the airport's overall passenger numbers have taken a massive knock.
So, probably the end of an era as far as Devon and Cornwall air links are concerned. But hopefully some happy memories for the many people for whom Air Southwest was a part of their life - because they worked for the airline, used the airline to fly to and from the region, or just enjoyed the sight of an Air Southwest Dash 8 on final approach to Newquay Airport, floating overhead the crashing waves of nearby Watergate Bay.