Alderney runway: lessons from the past

Edward Pinnegar examines what the past has to say about the Alderney runway issue – and what it doesn’t...

PLUS ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they remain the same. So said a paper from a retired pilot, circulated to Guernsey’s deputies this week, arguing against extending Alderney’s runway. It criticised ‘experts’ while citing three consultants’ reports. It laid into ‘a proliferation of paper’ while taking up several sides of its own to accuse the States of insufficient analysis.

The conundrums and controversies of how to connect Alderney to the outside world are not new ones. People have been trying to get to and from this lovely island by air since 1923. I should know – I was once a gobby 13-year-old who decided to write a book about the island’s aviation history.

I have listened to the debate on extending the runway with interest, but latterly I have to confess to a degree of fatigue. Public discussion appears to be mired in misinformation and nostalgia, dominated by a few voices who sometimes seem more interested in alleging vested interests than in Alderney’s prosperity, or in balancing the Bailiwick’s books. One gets the sense, as so often, that most hard-working islanders are staying quiet, while the debate is being taken to eccentric places by a vocal minority with unrepresentative views. Lots of mud, little clarity.

What does the past really teach us? And what does it not?

Alderney has always been a difficult place to reach. Victorian travellers complained that the journey by sea was ‘a veritable witch’s cauldron’ (Charles Wood), to a backward, ‘uninteresting’ (Octavius Rooke) island where people dried cow dung on the front of their houses (Georges Métivier). When aviation came to the islands, Alderney’s perilous seas made it a primary candidate for their first licensed aerodrome. Judge Robert (‘R. W.’) Mellish dug the first sod at 11.15am on Monday 1 April 1935, and works were undertaken by two tractors and a team of labourers funded by Jersey Airways Ltd. The official aerodrome license was awarded on 11 October, and flights started in earnest in 1936. Thus the island was finally connected, vaguely reliably, to the world.

Yet these services rarely paid their way in the early years. By the late-1960s, they were operated by British United Airways, with 15-seater de Havilland DH.114 Herons, load restricted to 13 passengers, which were costing the airline dearly. By 1967, they were unviable, losing £50,000 a year (£1m in 2022).

Guernsey’s Board of Administration proposed to solve the problem with a £130,000 improvement scheme (£2.6 million in 2022 – what good value it would seem now), at a reduced cost with works undertaken by the Army, which would have seen a longer, hard runway laid, permitting the operation of 56-seater Handley-Page Herald turboprops. The judgement then, as now, was that larger aircraft could be operated at similar cost to the much smaller Herons.

But the States of Guernsey vetoed the proposals as too costly, and the States of Alderney was concerned that they were too land intensive. A less extensive programme of improvements was thus carried out in 1967, at the cost of £46,000 (£930,000 today), entailing the more modest arrangement in which Alderney’s aerodrome remains today.

The leading aviation magazine Flight International’s correspondents warned that failing to invest in more extensive facilities would prove troublesome. In late-1967 they wrote that ‘airline economies combined with tightening safety standards could well face the island with the need for major airport reconstruction within a very few years’, and in February 1968, in an article headlined ‘Problem island’, that ‘the Alderney problem seems likely to persist in one form another until the island thinks again about its anachronistic airport’.

They were clearly wrong in their first prediction. Aurigny scored a staggering success of flying to Alderney around 50 years after it started in 1968 – but this was due to circumstances which can no longer be replicated by a small, dedicated airline which the runway extension’s detractors dream of.

The truth is that the backbone of Aurigny’s brilliant Islander and Trislander operation was the Guernsey-Jersey route. The company took this route up in May 1968, just two months after starting its Alderney services, taking over from BEA’s hopelessly inflexible, twice-daily Viscount flights. It meant that on summer weekends, when business passengers were few, Aurigny’s aircraft could be deployed to fly tourists to the islands, and in particular to Alderney. On winter weekdays, when tourists were nigh-on non-existent, the aircraft were kept busy shuttling chaps in suits between the offices of flourishing offshore finance firms in Jersey and Guernsey. It was a system of informal, unintended solidarity, where each island picked up the others’ slack. By the late 1980s, the company’s fleet of nine Trislanders and one Islander flew 24 flights each way between the larger islands in the summer, and 18 in winter.

In 1989, the route carried 207,551 passengers, representing some 66.3% of the company’s overall passenger numbers, and a 44% increase even on 1979. For the purposes of context, the 2018 figure on that route, operated by Blue Islands and Flybe, was less than half, at 101,837 (and in 2022 even that figure seems astronomical). Volumes on the Alderney routes were, similarly, unsurpassed after 1990, during which 41,258 passengers were carried on the Alderney-Guernsey link; 37,493 on the Southampton route; 18,115 between the northern isle and Jersey; and 2,421 to Bournemouth.

The rose-tinted debate about transport and ‘the old days’ also obscures the fact that tickets weren’t much cheaper in the 1980s than today. A one-way ticket between Alderney and Southampton in 1989, for instance, was set at £41.50 (equivalent to £115 today); a day return – bookable no more than three days beforehand – at £53 (2022: £147). The same rail/air return between Waterloo and Alderney via Southampton which had cost £12 7s (2022: £212) in 1970 was, by 1989, priced at £97 (2022: £303). Inter-island returns were priced at £36 (2022: £112). Nor was the operation, even by the standards of the day, particularly efficient: the load factor (percentage of seats filled) was just 61.3%, and average aircraft utilisation was 2.4 hours a day.

That world will not return. Aurigny no longer flies the Guernsey-Jersey route. Zoom has rendered nipping back and forth for meetings largely obsolete. The airline no longer enjoys a fleet of fully depreciated aerial minibuses, and these cannot be acquired overnight. The unit cost advantage of ATR operation on the route would make attempting to compete with Blue Islands with Dorniers, Tecnams, Twin Otters or Islanders an act of lunacy.

It could only return if the States of Guernsey were to implement a special licensing regime on the Guernsey-Jersey route, making operation of it conditional on provision of a minimum service level to Alderney. This would most likely mean booting Blue Islands off the route, causing huge damage to that company, and dealing a body blow to Guernsey’s reputation as a stable environment for business investment and free enterprise. It is neither desirable nor realistic – but it would be the only way back to the halcyon days which I am sure you will hear much about in the coming weeks.

A de Havilland Heron preparing to depart Alderney, mid-1950s. (Alderney Museum) (31388806)

Flight’s correspondents were, however, right in their second prediction. The island’s airport was anachronistic even in 1968, fifty-five years on it is obviously the more so. In 1965, the Islander’s designer, Desmond Norman, had ebulliently told journalists that it ‘leaps into the air like a cork out of a champagne bottle’, and in 1967 its list price was just £17,500 (2022: £353,000 – a new aircraft now costs well north of £1m). Aurigny paid for them first with Sir Derrick Bailey’s wallet, and then with thick routes on which it provided an excellent service without competition. Even in 1974, John Possnicker, Aurigny’s general manager, commented that ‘running an airline is like running a sweet shop, you count your profit in pennies rather than pounds.’

But these aircraft simply do not make money now. This is not really up for debate. Nobody makes profits anywhere in Europe with Islanders today (except perhaps for Scilly Skybus, which is shortly to retire them, but runs them at double Aurigny’s fares per mile) without big subsidies. In 1968, in a world where a return ticket from London to Malaga with BEA cost £54 10s (2022: £1,050) and a Southampton-Alderney return was £10 (2022: £192, only a little less than today’s average), Islanders were truly the mean clean queens of the sky. Today, they’re still fantastically capable, versatile aeroplanes… but they’re not money-spinners. And you have to go to Venezuela, the Wright brothers or the afterlife to find Trislanders (although elderly islanders are known to hallucinate them after a long lunch).

Even in their glory days, a long succession of firms tried and failed to make money with these aircraft in Alderney. Alderney Air Ferries folded in 1982 after three stellar years of service; Air Camelot threw in the towel in 1986; Air Sarnia collapsed in 1990. Blue Islands gave up in Alderney in 2011.

The moment that suitable electric technology is with us, all this may be very different – but that moment has yet to come, and decisions cannot be made based on tech which doesn’t yet exist. In any case, it is likely that the hydrogen or electric aircraft may require slightly longer runways anyway.

Nor does anyone in Europe make money with Twin Otters (again, perhaps with the exception of Scilly Skybus, with the same proviso as above). Although their brief service with Aurigny in the 1980s is now being positively eulogised, they proved difficult to maintain, and their big tails mean they have a lower crosswind limit than the Dorniers. (Use on 10 or 15 movements a day on grass runways is liable to tear them up in winter, and Guernsey has none – which is why an Aurigny Twin Otter was blown off the runway there on 16 October 1982 in a crosswind gusting 35 to 40 knots. It later had to be dug out of the grass.)

And not only does nobody make no money with Dorniers – in fact, there are none in airline service in Europe, other than Aurigny’s, at all. That’s despite them burning less fuel than Twin Otters: about 190kg per hour vs 225kg per hour in the cruise.

Among the rightly extensive scrutiny of the business case for Option C+, where is the business case for acquiring and running a bespoke fleet of Islanders, replete with spares, trained crew and engineers – all for an island of 2,300 people – to provide the same number of seats as now? How much of your money would this suck up? Similar experience elsewhere suggests a figure of at least £4m. a year, on top of what’s required to rebuild the runway and terminal building anyway. 11-seater Tecnam P2012s, arguably the Islander’s modern equivalents, are even more expensive, at around £2.3m. apiece.

Air services themselves (rather than maintenance of an airfield) are not a transferred service under the 1948 Agreement – so one can guarantee that some of the same people, seeing their buy-cheap-pay-thrice plan still cost several fortunes, would then demand the plug be pulled altogether. ‘It’s hopeless,’ they’d say, perhaps not particularly mournfully. The idea that Islanders and their ilk are the only option left is a myth, one which I believe some of its proponents understand means a policy of ‘managed decline’ for Alderney. Regardless of motive, those who support that above this carefully costed plan should get on and produce one of their own.

Luckily, we do not have to conjecture as to whether or not (serious, credible) operators would queue up to fly off an un-extended runway, if only Aurigny were to be booted out. History has the answer. When the Alderney services were put out to tender in 2018 and 2019 (at current level of subsidy – which may in future be lower or nil), nobody came forward with a suitable offer, and the process failed twice. Regardless, if someone wants to try making money operating a fleet of Islanders, they can fly off longer runways as well as shorter ones – so they will still be free to try.

Just as Heralds made more money than Herons in 1967, ATRs make more money than Dorniers and other small planes now. That’s why ATR has sold more than 1,800 aircraft into airline service worldwide against around only around 100 Dorniers. And an ATR burns just 3% more fuel, carrying even a load-restricted 45 passengers, than the latter carrying 19. They cost roughly the same to maintain and their pilots’ wages are very similar… but only one shares those costs more broadly. The same argument applies to the running and staffing costs of a modestly larger aerodrome – there is a hard-headed, common sense case that slightly bigger planes and airports do lose less cash.

Sometimes memories are long when it suits and short when it doesn’t. Don’t forget that Deputy Lyndon Trott – in alarming sincerity – argued in 2018 in favour of closing Alderney’s airport and replacing it with a boat, a plan which would have cut capacity (and therefore bums on seats – and in hotel beds) by at least 65%, with impossible disruption in winter. Lots of then-deputies agreed with him. It would have represented economic annihilation for Alderney, already reeling from a decade in recession. The cost of supporting the transferred services of this modern-day St Kilda would have leapt, obliterating many times over the savings from failing to provide proper transport. Once you’ve torn up the 1948 Agreement, as Deputy Trott and many others would have liked to, the argument is surely then: Why stop there? ‘Spending per pupil at St Anne’s School is unfairly much higher than at St Sampson’s.’ Zap. ‘The Mignot Hospital is now very costly. We must make difficult decisions.’ Au revoir. (Perhaps not such a difficult decision if you’re a rich bloke who lives in Guernsey and thinks the Alderneys have 12 fingers.)

You will hear a lot from these people, too, in the coming weeks. Listen to them respectfully, but never forget the very eccentric place they come from. They have devotedly opposed investment in Alderney while splashing the cash in Guernsey.

Don’t forget that very same Deputy Trott who said that Alderney’s only mainland route ‘should not command a material subsidy from the Guernsey taxpayer’ signed off an £825,000 subsidy for Flybe to operate a short-lived Guernsey-Heathrow route in 2019. This once-daily, mid-afternoon link was Guernsey’s 16th to the mainland, and its fourth at the time to London. In 2017, the subsidy for every Alderney passenger was about £60.20 per head; for Heathrow it was £66, before you even considered people switching away from Aurigny’s (taxpayer-funded) Gatwick service. The same people who supported this, £80m. for Guernsey’s airport revamp and £23m. for a jet, all without substantive economic analysis, will complain that the case for a proper airfield in Alderney (with one link to the mainland) isn’t worth spending the money on.

Also not to be forgotten is the thoroughly, openly negative relationship that they had with Alderney, thankfully since much-improved, when they held more influence. But it’s no surprise that with these people driving the debate, the old ‘problem island’ epithet can sometimes seem to hang round Alderney’s neck. Amid doom and gloom (‘Who’ll come?’, asks Deputy Soulsby), it’s easy to forget the island’s fundamental strengths. As many Guernseys discovered during the pandemic, this is a place of staggering natural beauty – but which hosts hundreds of millions of pounds in trust and branches of international Big Four professional services firms. It lies just 80 miles from England but enjoys income tax at 20% – no inheritance tax, no capital gains tax, no VAT. It enjoys a strong community but is liberal and tolerant. It has enormous potential.

Were it not sometimes easier and cheaper to await the second coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and to ask him to part the Swinge so we might walk across it, than to secure an airline ticket to this sceptred isle, it would therefore be a great deal richer. That’s not heterodox economics – it’s merely to acknowledge that providing a very limited number of expensive seats to and from the outside world is a fundamental bottleneck to the island’s prosperity, and its ability to contribute to the Bailiwick’s finances.

Many of these debates have been had before. What is missed every single time by decision-makers obsessing with minutiae is that an Alderney in decline is very expensive indeed. So they end up buying cheap, paying thrice. It is up to Guernsey’s deputies finally to reject the chimera of managed decline, and to realise Alderney’s potential by unshackling it from a future of eye-wateringly rubbish, expensive connections to the outside world. And – please – more years of stultifying negativity and complaint that the island is merely a drain, a subsidy junkie or a has-been.

The world has changed and the alternative, if there is one, isn’t any cheaper. I’m lucky – I have a pilot’s licence, and a share in a tiny plastic plane which consumes as much fuel as a VW Polo and can land on a postage stamp. I’ll keep flying back and forth to Alderney, when the weather doesn’t look like it wants to eat me, regardless of their decision. But I hope they learn from the mistakes of the past and do the right thing for the Bailiwick’s taxpayers, and Alderney’s future.

  • Edward Pinnegar is the author of several books on aviation history. He is a policy advisor in the UK Civil Service, and divides his time between the UK and Alderney. His history of Aurigny Air Services will be published by Fonthill in 2023.

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