Part 1. all aboard the Santa Special!
It was a tumultuous Christmas for Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen. No sooner had he got the official Tees Valley Combined Authority Christmas card off to the printers with encouraging facts about the authority’s progress, than a few things started to change, none of them, it has to be said, for the better.
A few additional details: the flights to Lapland are the Santa Specials of which there are two next December. Two Northern Lights charters are this month (January) but you’ve now missed them. Anyone wishing to go to Belfast or Dublin should be aware that those flights will cease at the end of March. Flights to Dalaman, in Turkey, won’t start until 2024. Changes to the Aberdeen service mean that from now on the service will no longer be based at Teesside. The number of flights to Aberdeen is also about to be reduced.
Two questions: how did the airport project fall this far? Is there a Plan B? The answer to the first, in short, is Houchen. His strategy for the airport was, from the outset, confused, self-serving, and destined to failure. The answer to the second is, yes.
When business gets this bad you might expect any rational person to try to keep it quiet. But that is not the way the mayor does things. The tried and tested method is to keep saying ‘isn’t this great?’ regardless of evidence to the contrary, and to balance it with ‘anyone who says different is playing politics and trying to run our region down’. Integral to the strategy is myth creation about which Houchen and his advisors are indefatigable.
Houchen in Wonderland
Houchen undoubtedly knows that the aviation business at Teesside is in dire straits. He couldn’t fail to. Even if he doesn’t look at the accounts, his offices are in the terminal building. He can see that the departure lounge is permanently deserted (as Tees Valley Monitor reported in August). But Houchen is then quoted on the airport website as saying, “Teesside Airport had a fantastic summer …” It’s not a lie, it’s a fantasy. And for his supporters (about whom there’s more than a whiff of MAGA) fantasy brings comfort.
If rewriting the past is one key element in Houchen’s strategy, publicising new developments while missing out pertinent details is another.
At the end of August 2022, the £2.5 million air freight facility finally opened. Cue another good news piece on Houchen’s Facebook page:
Teesside Airport moving onwards and upwards, and diversifying its operation? A triumph of speedy cargo-handling dexterity at the new £2.5 million air freight facility? Well, not quite, as it turns out.
The post is dated 28 November, three months after the facility officially opened, and two months after the new Head of Cargo, Walter Jones, took up his post. On the day the freight facility opened, on 29 August, a news item on the Teesside Airport website announced:
“The new facility will all serve to capitalise on the huge opportunity within the region. For example, a total of £2.9billion of goods were exported from the North East in Q4 2021, with a 47.3% recovery from the pandemic low point in Q2 2020, higher than the national average. It will target the some 71,000 businesses within an hour’s drive of the airport, as well as those further afield.”
Presumably the three months between the official opening and the first freight (on 24 November) was spent doing that targeting. But, as trade paper Stat Times reports, by 7 December the airport had handled two ad hoc cargo flights. By 20 December, the airport website was reporting that 13 such consignments had arrived from Hungary. That works out at roughly one every two days.
A second element about which detail is lacking is the inaugural consignment itself. The reader who sent us details of the first freight pointed out that it was delivered by a company called Air Taxi Aero, who provide freight services tailored to just-in-time manufacturing needs. Keyword here is ‘taxi’.
And just how much freight does an air taxi carry? A maximum of 1500 kilos; a load that can be easily accommodated in a transit van.
But there’s more. The FB post states, “The team received the call at short notice, but were on hand …” In other words, the ‘team’ are on standby to handle these short-notice consignments. And for the rest of the time are presumably just waiting patiently for something to happen.
So, in commercial terms, the air freight facility is probably less of a money spinner than the Santa Specials. And did it really need the development of a £2.5 million air freight facility to handle it? (a point to which we return later).
An airport with hardly any flights, and an air freight facility that handled two taxi-loads worth of cargo in three months. As a commercial venture, Teesside Airport is not so much a failure as a fiasco. Is that just down to spectacular ineptitude, or is there more to it?
In the next episode we return to the original business plan which paved the way for the airport to be brought back into public ownership, and reveal that, from the outset, Houchen was more interested in controlling the asset than building a viable commercial enterprise.