Swansea cabinet member shares frustrations over county’s airport

A SWANSEA cabinet member said he shared people’s frustration about the county’s airport, whose licence was provisionally suspended in February on safety management grounds.

Campaigners asked a series of questions at a meeting of full council about what had gone on to date at the airport, and why cabinet had agreed to start negotiating a new lease with the current operator.

They claimed the reputation of the council, which owns the facility at Fairwood Common, Gower, had been brought into disrepute by the way the lease had been managed and by January’s decision to discuss a new one with operator Swansea Airport Ltd.

Five campaigners spoke in turn, with one of them saying his plans to fly a plane on two occasions since cabinet agreed to start negotiating a new lease had been hampered by a lack of aircraft fuel due to no trained operators, a lack of fuel in the rescue vehicle, and poor maintenance of the runway and taxi ways.

“How can the council even consider the lease with Swansea Airport Ltd?” he said.

Another campaigner asked if the council had a contingency plan were the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to permanently revoke the licence.

A group called Swansea Airport Stakeholders Alliance, representing users of the airport, wants to run it as a not-for-profit venture. Separately, a businessman has put forward plans to operate it on a commercial basis.

Cabinet was advised by legal experts when it took the decision to negotiate the new lease that Swansea Airport Ltd had significant legal rights, that the council had to be mindful of the landlord-tenant relationship, and that operational matters were essentially a matter for the operator and the CAA. The recommendation was to stick with Swansea Airport Ltd while ensuring it continued to invest in the airport. A report acknowledged, though, that “issues in connection with lack of aviation fuel, general management, staffing levels etc have all been raised over the years since the lease was first granted”.

Around three weeks after the lease negotiation decision was made, the CAA suspended the airport’s licence for a “systemic failure of safety management”. The operator was required to submit an action plan to the regulator, which it has done. The council is now reviewing its legal position, and a further report is due before cabinet in the coming weeks.

Speaking at full council on March 30, Cllr David Hopkins, cabinet member for corporate service and performance, said there was not much he could add in public at this stage.

“Can I just assure you, we have not just sat back, we have been proactive,” he said.

Cllr Hopkins said the council had got involved when the airport’s licence had previously been suspended to ensure it remained open as long as possible. He also said he had the “greatest faith” in the council’s officers.

He added: “We are in this position. Is it the best position? Probably not.”
Addressing campaigners, he said: “I do share your frustration, I must say.”

Later in the meeting, Cllr Stuart Rice asked Cllr Hopkins if he wanted the airport to remain operational in the longer term. He replied that this was his ambition.

Cllr James McGettrick asked if the council could terminate the lease with Swansea Airport Ltd if there were serious safety failures. Cllr Hopkins reiterated that these matters were predominantly the leaseholder’s responsibility.

“I believe the leaseholder is in discussions with the CAA during this present time,” he said.

Swansea Airport Ltd, which announced plans on social media in January for new passenger flights between Swansea and Exeter, said discussions were continuing with the regulator.

Director Roy Thomas said: “It is moving in the right direction, and we have a new accountable manager. It is progressing in a positive way which will benefit Swansea and the surrounding area.”

Mr Thomas said the Swansea to Exeter passenger flight plans were on hold, that he hoped the airport cafe would finally reopen in around a month, and that the airport had to be more business and leisure-orientated to make it commercially viable.

A spokesman for the CAA said Swansea Airport Ltd had submitted the corrective action plan as required, but that it was “unacceptable”.

He said: “Swansea’s aerodrome licence remains suspended to allow time for its management team to further develop and implement corrective actions that we’re satisfied with.”

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