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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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Can this man finally help Carlisle Airport take off?

Scampering down the tarmac at Carlisle Airport, the pigs flap their little wings, soar up into the heavens and fly far, far away.

Andy Judge photo
Andy Judge

An unlikely scenario, one might think. But to Cumbrians who have spent years watching ambitious plans come to nothing, pigs are about as likely to fly from Carlisle as planes.

Andy Judge understands the scepticism of those who have heard it all before. But the new airport director is also encouraged by the support he has sensed for regular flights to and from Carlisle, while mindful of strong opposition from some of the neighbours.

Mr Judge took charge two weeks ago. His first public declaration will be welcomed by many – flights could be leaving Carlisle for Amsterdam, Paris, London, Dublin, Southampton, Birmingham and Belfast from early 2011.

This is not the first man to sit in an office at the Crosby-on-Eden airfield and promise Cumbrians the world.

But he is the first new incumbent whose words are supported by a multi-million-pound business empire.

Stobart Group bought the airport last May and recruited Judge from Luton Airport.

The group has planning permission for a £25m redevelopment which would provide an HQ and warehousing for its Eddie Stobart subsidiary and facilities for Stobart Rail.

Judge insists that the Stobart empire’s backing is what gives his words more weight than those of his predecessors.

“I see this as a fantastic opportunity,” says the 50-year-old, who has bought a house near Keswick with his wife Sue.

“There is a way forward with the relocation of Eddie Stobart and Stobart Rail.

“We have an opportunity to run the airport with realistic commercial funding. That’s the difference.

“You can’t run an airport with aviation alone. Every airport has two major income streams – planes and commercial revenue. The starting point for me is to get development for the Stobart Group underway. In parallel with that, the aviation facilities. I take a holistic view of both sides of the business. They’re linked together.”

That link could yet prove fatally damaging to the plans. There have been numerous legal challenges and the latest, from Thomas Gordon Brown of Lane End Farm, Irthington, reached the High Court last week.

Brown claims the granting of planning permission for storage and distribution at the airport was unlawful. A judge will decide whether there is a case for a full judicial review hearing.

“The legal side is for others in the group to be dealing with,” says Judge. “I’m still pushing ahead with the flights side of things.”

He acknowledges, though, that refusal of storage and distribution at the airport would have “a significant impact” on the plans for flights.

In the meantime, he is attempting to persuade airlines that they can make money at Carlisle.

“From what I’ve seen there’s a massive demand. Studies have been done about potential passenger numbers, although these need to be updated.”

Might some airlines be willing to put on occasional flights to test the water? “It very much depends on the airline. It’s a commercial decision for them.”

It’s clear that a lot of things are up in the air, and not in the way Judge would like. He is still working his way through piles of reports and screens full of statistics.

Rough estimates for how many flights and how many passengers? “It’s too early to say, although the planes would probably be 50-100 seats.”

It’s also too early to discuss whether flights might be limited to certain times of the day, or night.

These are among the concerns expressed by opponents to the airport’s expansion.

“There’s always going to be differences of opinion,” says Judge. “That’s just the way things are. We’re sensitive to the demands of our customers, and local residents. I would say to them, don’t be worried. We will not be turning Carlisle Airport into Heathrow.”

Would he be willing to meet the airport’s opponents? “I’m sure in time I’ll get to meet everybody.”

The opposition is unlikely to be placated by the detail Judge is able to provide.

“We need to make sure the growth of the airport is undertaken in tandem with facilities that provide passengers with what they would expect. You get to a point where the number of people coming in demands certain facilities.

“Such as suitable bus routes. You wouldn’t want to get off a plane at 10 o’clock at night and not be able to go anywhere. If you fly here you might want to pick up a hire car. And suitable hotels in the area.”

Could there be a hotel at the airport? “Who knows? We built one at Leeds just before I left.”

Might the road to the airport, currently a quiet, leafy lane, be upgraded? “I don’t know yet.”

And to those who argue that Carlisle doesn’t need an airport because Newcastle is only an hour’s drive away?

“Newcastle might not be too far away from Carlisle, but Carlisle Airport serves the whole of Cumbria and the border region. If the flights are right, people have been known to travel past other airports to get to one that serves them best. We could have people travelling here from much further afield.”

The financial impact of the airport depends on those still uncertain passenger numbers.

In Judge’s five years as operations manager at Leeds Bradford, passenger numbers doubled to three million.

During three years as operations director at Luton, numbers increased by 10 per cent to 10 million.

These kinds of figures will not be seen at Carlisle.

But there is a lot of money at stake and not only from flights.

The annual value of safeguarding 1,225 Stobart Group jobs by relocating to the airport (the company says they would otherwise go out of Cumbria) is estimated at £36.25m.

The value of 157 new jobs for Stobart Group and airport workers – £2.12m. Ninety-two construction jobs – £1.25m.

Building work is due to begin early in 2010 and should take just under a year.

While the airport has traditionally been seen as a way for Cumbrians to grab some sun, Judge talks up the prospect of people flying here from all over the world to savour the Lake District.

“There’s no reason why you can’t get this to be a thriving regional airport, starting with a couple of flights in a couple of years’ time.

“Quite a large number of businesses in this region would benefit. There is a demand for people to travel easily.

“I’ve just moved up from Hertfordshire. For me to drive up here was four-and-a-half or five hours, minimum. If you live south of London it could take seven hours.

“Those people who want to get away but haven’t got much time – why not encourage them to fly for short breaks?”

So much for the economic arguments. Judge says there are others you won’t find on any balance sheet.

“Cumbria has its university now. If it has an airport as well these two things will come together as iconic symbols of the region and enhance its confidence.

“People are excited about it. If we can get flights to one or two major hubs – maybe Amsterdam, Paris, London – you could jump on a plane in Carlisle and get straight on another to anywhere in the world.”

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