Low-cost airline Ryanair has expressed an interest in flying from Leuchars RAF base if it becomes a commercial airport after the RAF leaves next year.
The base is set to be vacated by the RAF in 2015, when the two Typhoon squadrons there will be moved to RAF Lossiemouth. At that point the army will take over, but the Ministry of Defence has spoken of the possibility of shared military-civilian use.
An MOD spokesman told The Scotsman that “the MoD [Ministry of Defence] is happy in principle to speak to any organisation that wishes to look into the possible use of Leuchars as a commercial airfield.” The spokesman also noted that “any plans would need to take into account that Leuchars will continue as a military base.”
In 2012, Ryanair made clear that it would be very interested in the prospect of operating out of RAF Leuchars or Dundee airport. Ryanair’s closest current destination to St Andrews is Edinburgh International airport. The use of Dundee airport has since been ruled out by Ryanair owing to the length of the runways, which is more than 1,000 metres shorter than that of RAF Leuchars.
Dundee airport has been struggling in recent months. In 2008 the airport had 80,000 passengers; at the beginning of 2014, it hosted only one service. That single service was run by CityJet, which will drop its London City airport service from Dundee at the end of this month. A temporary service to London Stansted will begin via LoganAir on 30 March.
Despite its struggling service load, a 2013 Transport Scotland report on Dundee airport indicated that the agency believed there were ways to make the airport commercially viable. It noted the surge in business aviation at the airport between 2001-02 and 2008-09, when such air traffic increased nearly four-fold, and the financial importance of business aviation to the airport. The report also said it believed that business aviation would pick up if RAF Leuchars would stop accepting this kind of traffic. Moreover, it stated that civilian traffic may expand to a point where Dundee airport could pick up an international route. Amsterdam was cited as a possible option.
The report declined to consider the “potential joint use of RAF Leuchars for civilian aviation operations” given the uncertainty of the airbase’s future. The University of St Andrews said it was cautiously optimistic about the Leuchars project but warned against false hopes.
“It is an exciting possibility which remains a long way from reality, but it is encouraging to know for the first time that the possibility exists,” a University spokesman told The Courier. The spokesman also said that “international air services on the doorsteps of our universities in Fife and Tayside would be transformative for Scottish higher education an research.”
MSP Roderick Campbell of North East Fife has increased pressure on the Ministry of Defense to complete an urgent feasibility study on turning RAF Leuchars into a joint civilian and military venture. He commented that “it is now essential that the MoD follows up my requests for a feasibility study as a matter of priority and engages in serious dialogue with Ryanair, to make sure this vision becomes a reality.” He noted that the airport has brought in £500,000 in “private” flights, and allowing civilian flights may bring yet more. Noting that the community did not deserve “another broken promise from the Westminster government”, he also said that it would be a “horrendous waste” for the infrastructure at RAF Leuchars to not be developed for community use.
However, others have been more sceptical about the news. Dundee City Council member Ken Guild said he was concerned about bringing commercial air traffic to RAF Leuchars. He said that “to follow through on any suggestion that another ‘local’ airport should be created would be a massively expensive, time-consuming and complex undertaking.” He also noted that Dundee airport’s “long track record of handling commercial flights” should be taken into consideration.
MP Menzies Campbell, who is also chancellor of the University of St Andrews, shared Mr Guild’s hesitance about the development. He said that “we should not get carried away with this possibility” and noted that the idea had been considered and rejected previously, owing to the security issues inherent in hosting both commercial and military traffic in a single complex. He also feared that the infrastructure surrounding RAF Leuchars may prove lacking in the face of commercial airport traffic.