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Today, The Echo breathlessly reprinted a press release... sorry, wrote a feature… celebrating the fact that Ryanair has announced two new summer routes from Liverpool. To Poland and Croatia.

Airline boss Michael O’Leary said he hoped to increase the annual passenger numbers to three million in the next three years. But there is another story here.

This time last year, Ryanair opened its base at Manchester airport in a bid to compete with budget rivals Easyjet and Jet2.com. There was a time when Manchester airport sniffily ignored the advances of low-cost carriers. The travel world has changed – Manchester Airports Group now actively courts low-cost carriers, as holidaymakers move away from the traditional charter carriers (Airtours, Thomas Cook et al) that used to provide much of its business.

In the past 12 months following Ryanair’s Manchester opening, Liverpool John Lennon Airport has lost more Ryanair routes than any UK airport: seven in total. Conversely, Manchester has gained more routes than any UK airport – a full 21. They don’t mention that on the Echo press release.

Walk around town on any given weekend and you’ll hear more curious languages than in a Eurovision semi final heat. But for how long will Liverpool be able to rely on the lure of low-frills travel to bring punters to our city from all points East? For every plane out of John Lennon, there’s a plane in: bringing with it an estimated 10 million overseas tourists a year. It is our tourism lifeline. How many low-cost travellers into Manchester will ever make it here?

It’s a worry. With airlines falling from the sky at an alarming rate (not literally, but the industry is certainly going through a period of consolidation) John Lennon Airport’s niche as a regional economy hub is being tested like never before, as Ryanair and Easyjet eye up larger hubs with a greater population catchment area.

When Ryanair began flying from Manchester it was set to operate 26 routes by summer. In fact, it now operates 30. The carrier has invested £175 million at the airport with the new base operating up to 360 flights a week.

“Ryanair’s 2 million passengers p.a. will sustain up to 2,000 jobs at Manchester airport and in the surrounding region,” O’Leary bragged at the time.

Easyjet, too, have shaved four routes from Liverpool this year (from Gibralta ro Brussels, Canary Isles to Malta), despite claiming that John Lennon ‘will not suffer’ from their Manchester expansion plans.

Industry expert Paul Taylor told SevenStreets “In Britain easyJet obviously sees the best prospects at Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and to a degree Bristol. They will get expansion. Stansted and Liverpool are likely to get cuts.”

“There will be a shuffle around of flights for Ryanair, but on the whole this is a mature market, with growth only coming where there’s a high break-even load factor,” he says, referring to the need for these flights to fly at as close to capacity as possible.

“Manchester benefits from having a 360 degree catchment area, and load-levels unsurpassed in the north of England,” he says.

With KLM’s trailblazing route from Liverpool to New York, via Amsterdam, dropped, and easyJet expansion plans favouring longer routes (such as its new Manchester-Reykjavik route) from larger hubs, it’s pleasing to see new routes for Liverpool. But it’s hardly time to crack open the in-flight bubbly.

We love Liverpool airport. Its role in our region’s development is vital, but maybe the low-fare model isn’t the panacea for its survival: a new report by the European Parliament is in no doubt that an over-reliance on low-cost operators could well prove counter-productive.

“The restrictive policies adopted by some low cost airline companies not only make travelling more difficult but they also have a negative impact on airport business and prejudice regional airport revenues,” the report says.

In particular the one-bag rule, and strict weight regulations, they say, represents a breach
of competition law and may constitute an abuse of a carrier’s position.

The future, surely, for Liverpool – and airports like it – is to offer keener prices for ancillary services (parking – £2 for every five minutes? What the…?). Making our airport more competitive, more enjoyable, and easier to use would surely add an edge over its competitors. Whatever the plan, we hope Peel are hatching one, and fast.

Airlines prefer to service large hubs where they know they’ll be able to fill planes multiple times during a day. Regional airports will always have a role to play. But, as with many other things, Liverpool’s geography – and its proximity to the hungry runways of Manchester – might well ground its expansion plans.

(We asked to speak to Liverpool John Lennon Airport, but they declined.)

  • Mart

    This is really very worrying. Part of Liverpool’s boost as a tourist city is obviously down to these routes – I’ve flown to Poland and many other places through there, and I’m constantly amazed at the amount of tourists coming here on the way back. If we lose any more routes through there, it will be disastrous. Outside of the summer season, the airport’s getting quieter and quieter.

    These low cost airlines paint the airports into a corner, in a way, and so they’re at the mercy of them when they decide to stop flying to certain destinations.

    Manchester Airport’s constantly busy, and bustling, and the low cost carriers must do a roaring trade through there. But the worry is that if getting to the North West via Manchester is the only option for tourists, they’re less likely to make the effort to get the train into Liverpool while they’re here.

  • David Lloyd

    Exactly matt. I’d say it was priority number one for our new LEP tourist chiefs to do all it can to shore up JLA. For all our sakes.

  • http://twitter.com/krisstig Karen Gillett

    well said Mart…I’m still peeved that Ryanscare scrapped the Swedish route. The journey is now minimum 5 times the cost to go from Manchester. they dropped loads of routes last year. surely tourism will suffer as a result of losing so many routes.

  • Chis

    It doesn’t help that our own city doesn’t have a direct rail link to the airport from the city centre or out to chester. You should be able to get a train from Manchester to Liverpool airport with no changes.

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  • The Early Air Way

    The opening of Ryanair’s Manchester is responsible for these troubled times for John Lennon airport, seven routes are a lot to lose.

  • Nigel Jacobson

    As a travel agent now running my own travel agency in Vancouver BC Canada and being born and living in Liverpool for 40 years it saddens me to see Liverpool always overshadowed by Manchester Airport.
    Whenever clients come to my travel agency to book from Canada to the UK they all know there are two main options from Vancouver to the UK, to Gatwick and Manchester. Everyone here in Canada knows the name of Manchester.
    No one knows where Liverpool is. This is very sad for a city that has such an amazing variety of things to do as well as being a UNESCO world heritage site.
    What does the city of Manchester have, nothing compared to Liverpool.
    It’s time Liverpool Airport GREW UP and it’s top priority should be to get KLM back into our city, We should never have lost them in the first place. I know the parent company Air France is in a bad financial position but the airport management should have offered any incentive AT ANY PRICE to keep KLM. Their presence is essential to put Liverpool back on the world map.
    Liverpool also needs to enter the 21st century and invest in air bridges, even the smallest airports here in Canada ALL HAVE AIR BRIDGES!
    Liverpool also needs to extend it’s runway 09/27 to be able to operate North America West Coast Flights viable, maybe then us travel agents in Canada can lobby airlines such as Air Transat to operate at least one of their summer weekly Manchester flights to fly into Liverpool.

    Once they see how popular the city becomes with their passengers I am convinced that they will at last see what we are talking about and invest in future services to the city