Can the new owners of Manston Airport succeed where others failed? RiverOak director, Tony Freudmann, tells Tom Allett how the company is planning to relaunch the dormant airfield
After a five-year struggle, efforts to reopen Manston Airport on the southeast tip of England received a major boost in July when the UK government approved a £300m development plan. Ironically, the green light for the airport’s revival has coincided with the commercial aviation industry’s struggle with the COVID-19 crisis, but the Kent facility’s owners believe air cargo provides a way forward.
Manston Airport, adjacent to the port town of Ramsgate and about 70 miles from London, can trace its history back a hundred years, but it remained a purely military airfield known as RAF Manston until 1960. Then a 38-acre space within the airfield was opened up to commercial passenger flights and, for almost three decades, the RAF shared its runway with several civilian tour operators. Although the runway remained under RAF/Ministry of Defence control, the two parties worked well together.
Manston could never truly be described as a busy international airport, although passenger numbers did reach 700,000 per annum in the early days. The civilian element of RAF Manston was rebranded as Kent International Airport in 1989 and its newly built passenger terminal received a royal opening. Most of the RAF site closed at the end of March 1999, leaving a fire training school as the only remaining MOD presence on the site – and even that is slated to shut its doors on an as-yet undisclosed date.
Since RAF Manston ceased to operate, some sections of the land have changed ownership several times. The MOD sold the airfield site to the Wiggins Group and it became part of the property developer’s plan to create a network of regional airports under the PlaneStation brand. The latter company collapsed in 2005, along with the Manston-based low-cost carrier, EUJet, that it had acquired shortly before. PlaneStation’s administrators then sold the airport to New Zealandheadquartered Infratil for £17m. At the same time, as part of its foray into the European airport market, Infratil also acquired Glasgow Prestwick (PIK), but the airport operator eventually wrote-off those two assets in 2013.
Infratil sold Manston to billionaire businesswoman Ann Gloag in October 2013 for £1. There was talk of investment to boost the airport’s potential, but Manston closed just seven months later, despite there having been offers from other prospective buyers.
Since that time, its destiny has hung in the balance. Stone Hill Park became the third owner in as many years, with Ms Gloag still having a controlling interest, and there were proposals to build potentially thousands of houses and a business park, but for the last six years the airfield has lain dormant. Fears that the UK’s departure from the European Union could lead to huge traffic queues at the Port of Dover 20 miles away resulted in a deal being struck with the government to use the airfield as a giant emergency lorry park if required, but that agreement expires at the end of this year.
We’ve been interested in Manston since it closed
Tony Freudmann Director, RSP
The current owner is RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP). It had previously tried but failed to acquire the airfield site through a compulsory purchase order with the help of the local council. Nevertheless, its continued efforts over a near five-year period eventually led to it buying the freehold of the entire airfield on July 19, 2019 and it was granted a Development Consent Order (DCO) to restore the airport by the UK government’s Department for Transport on July 9, 2020. The documentation accompanying the DCO stated: “There is a clear justification for authorising the development”.
In a conversation at the airfield on July 22, RSP director Tony Freudmann told Airports International: “We’ve been interested in Manston since it closed, because RiverOak and its investors recognised that it had huge potential as a cargo hub. This is an airport that can be used to handle large cargo aircraft and we believe there is almost no capacity for aircraft like that in the London system or, indeed, in the south of England.
“That’s been our plan and our proposal. Manston has a long runway; it has good road and rail connections – and indeed via the River Thames – so we believe that it is perfect as a cargo hub. And, more importantly, so do our investors.
“We think it has some potential for passengers, but probably just three or four low-cost aircraft based here, plus hopefully a feeder service from here to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam through KLM, as was the case before.
“The reason we say that Manston has such a potential is that the other airports in the London system – apart from Heathrow – have only one runway, and [except for during the COVID crisis], they are all pretty full. Stansted recently applied to have its passenger number cap increased but was turned down by the local authority. Things are bulging at the seams and what tends to happen is that cargo flights get pushed out.
“We and our investors feel, that in a post-Brexit world where the emphasis is going to be on global trade for the UK, that it is essential for the country – and especially the south of England – to have a specialist cargo hub. We believe that it is worth investing in and will pay its way, and that’s why we’re here.
“Now, having been granted the DCO, we are at the point of starting a major construction programme which will probably last until the beginning of 2023 – it will cost around £300M. We are also arranging for the airspace above Manston to be re-allocated to the airport, a process called Airspace Change. And, of course, the airport will be fully certified by the CAA with all necessary licences. So we have a huge task ahead of us, but the target is to open at some point in the late spring 2023.”
We have a huge task ahead of us, but the target is to open at some point in the late spring 2023.
The Civil Aviation Authority’s figures record that Manston’s best annual cargo total – 43,026 tons – was achieved in 2003, which was also the year that its cargo aircraft movements reached an alltime high of 1,081.
A decade later, in its last full year of operation, those numbers were 29,306 and 511 respectively, although passenger numbers had increased significantly, largely thanks to KLM introducing an Amsterdam service in April 2013, although this proved to be short-lived.
Asked why the airport could succeed now, given its history, Mr Freudmann spoke of the primary infrastructure tasks RSP must undertake: “People refer to Manston’s past failures, and the problem was that it had a long runway and nothing else. If you are going to run a successful cargo airport or, indeed, any kind of airport, you need aircraft parking stands and Manston did not have them, so that is the first issue.
“The second point concerns the airfield’s runway. The runway is at the highest point of the airport, but there is an 11m drop from that runway high point down to the edge [of the airfield], and that means the airfield’s gradients do not meet the regulations. Today’s rules say that you are only allowed 1% and many of the gradients here are way above 2%. So, we must do a huge amount of earth levelling to get the gradients right, which in itself could cost millions.”
RSP plans to build an initial 16 or 17 Code E parking stands, capable of handling aircraft with dimensions no greater than 225ft – such as a Boeing 747-8 – in its first phase of development. New connecting taxiways will be added along with a freight handling facility covering “several hundred thousand square feet.” As the whole airfield was essentially stripped bare following its closure, apart from the runway, everything else – air traffic control, radar, airfield lighting, ILS, firefighting and fuelling equipment, etc – must be replaced. Road access to the airport will also be improved and, taking all that into consideration, Mr Freudmann said that RSP’s consultants have advised that the total cost is likely to approach £300million over two years.
The new freight facility will be built on the northern side of the airfield, a site currently occupied by some aircraft hangars. Much of the survey and design work is still to be done, and Mr Freudmann explained that RSP has yet to decide whether it will go to tender for the necessary building work, or enter in a form of partnership with one of the major contractors it is speaking to. As for issuing contracts, he expects to reach that stage in the “middle or third quarter” of 2021.
RSP believes Manston will need around 300,000 tons of freight per annum – about seven times higher than it has achieved before – to make the airport “comfortably viable”. Mr Freudmann noted: “We’re building a capacity for 750,000 tons in the fullness of time.
“If we can achieve 300,000 tons and then eventually reach 750,000, we will be the second largest cargo airport in the country after Heathrow [and its belly cargo], and by far and away the largest specialist freighter airport [overtaking East Midlands].”
The airport’s DCO puts the annual caps for aircraft movements at 25,000 – 12,500 arrivals plus an equal number of departures. Of that 25,000, 18,000 will be for cargo flights and the rest of them for passenger services.
Local anti-airport groups continue to oppose the airport’s development on the grounds of noise and pollution, and many have expressed concerns about potential night flights, although the DCO has already ruled them out. Mr Freudmann highlighted that the core operating hours will be from 7am to 11pm, but there is a ‘shoulder’ between 6am and 7am for departing passenger flights that lose an hour when they fly into continental Europe. Given the current state of the aviation industry, the figures stated in the DCO look like ambitious targets, but despite the plunging passenger numbers, the freight business is stable.
Looking back at past statistics, Mr Freudmann points out that the totals concerned only inbound cargo, because Manston never handled any outbound air freight: “They didn’t have the right facilities here; no aircraft parking stands, no warehouse or storage facilities, not even any offices for freight forwarders. What used to happen was that the flights would arrive with perishables and they would be unloaded and be out on the road very quickly – it was brilliant. But the aircraft would then leave empty, ferrying somewhere – often Luxembourg – to pick up its next load, which is obviously uneconomical.
“So, you can do the [required movement] calculations yourself. There will be bunching of course; there will be some hours when there are only three or four movements, but others when there could be as many as ten.”
Talking of economics, I asked if it would need one of the big air cargo integrators – perhaps FedEx, UPS, DHL or TNT – to be heavily committed to Manston to make it a commercial success. Mr Freudmann replied: “[we foresee] a few movements from many companies, but we’re also looking at e-fulfilment [businesses selling their products via the internet] and the new developments there. As everybody knows, without naming any names, there are big players that have moved into that market in the last few years.”
We’re also looking at e-fulfilment and developments there
He acknowledged that such operations usually need night flights and Manston’s operating hours won’t allow them, but added: “If those companies were to come to us wanting unlimited daytime slots, then we would certainly look at making that work for them.” He also noted that while ‘no night flights’ doesn’t normally work for the integrators, it does work for other types of air cargo operations.
“If you look at what happened at Frankfurt, when the curfew was finally imposed there, the freight traffic just turned to the day and it was clear that they’d been pushed into operating at night because, frankly, it suited the airport. But, if you look at the numbers [flights and cargo volumes] they have held up pretty well.”
A supporter’s view
Dr Beau Webber is the chairman of the Save Manston Airport association (SMAa). He specialises in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for material science and, when asked how he became involved in the SMA campaign, replied: “We’ve been following the fortunes of the airport for a long time. I originally had my NMR lab in Canterbury and then later in Hersden, which is about 20 minutes’ drive away. One day, as I drove past Manston Airport, I saw a sign on the boundary fence saying that KLM was going to start flying to Amsterdam and, from there, connecting to the rest of the world. Almost immediately, I decided to move my former lab here and set it up as a proper NMR research laboratory. Then it was announced that the airport was closing. I joined the protest against the closure and soon became involved with the original SMA association and, about six months later, I accepted an invitation to become its chairman. Various complexities meant that the original SMA website became defunct, so the committee started a new one, Save Manston Airport association, and I have been chairman of that ever since.”
He recalled how the airport’s previous owner, Ann Gloag, closed Manston in 2014 and handed the site’s day-to-day caretaking to a third party, which then tried to obtain planning permission to build houses on the land.
Several pro-airport groups were formed, some via social media, and at one stage volunteers were visiting shopping centres and similar locations to get people to sign up and show their support for the airport. Dr Webber claimed that the combined membership across the support groups peaked at approximately 30,000, adding that “inactive members” of the social media groups were not counted in the 30k.
He said the weight of local support led to the pro-airport groups, including SMAa, taking petitions to the government and asking the local Thanet District Council (TDC) to back RiverOak in pursuing a Compulsory Purchase Order for Manston Airport that would prevent the site being built upon.
Given that Manston has now been closed for more than six years, why does Dr Webber think the airport can be a viable business again?
He replied: “We have done a lot of [survey] work to find out whether people support the airport or not. To date, we have found that some 80 to 90% of the people of Thanet and East Kent want Manston back as a working airport.
“There are also people that don’t want it to reopen, but the number of ‘anti’ votes in a range of elections and polls is consistently below 20%. An antiairport movement is still active, but it can only muster around 10-15% of the SMAa’s membership and I believe that it represents a very small fraction of the total Thanet population.
“So yes, there are some people that don’t like the airport, but many believe it is an important facility for providing local jobs and education.”
He acknowledged that despite the DCO award on July 9, the airport’s opponents have raised thousands of pounds through crowdfunding to pay for a judicial review of the government’s decision, but he is confident that the airport’s development will proceed.
Education is vital
Dr Webber noted that, last year, when the possible application for a Development Consent Order to reopen Manston was being discussed, the potential benefits for local education and training were emphasised. As this piece was being written, RiverOak was in the process of discussing teaching and training with local education centres, such as Canterbury Christ Church University and East Kent College, with a view to delivering a range of aviation-related training courses. Dr Webber added: “That’s the main thing that we are supporting at the moment – education and training – putting in place solid agreements to ensure that people will be taught the skills they need to do the specific aviation trades that are created.”
Asked how this would be funded, Dr Webber explained that RiverOak would be putting £300m into the airport’s infrastructure, and the DCO requires they put a minimum of £1.5m into education and training, but he suggested that the company would “expect some money from the colleges for the business gains they will make.”
A site for an aviation academy has been identified inside the allocated area for airport-related buildings.
While Manston’s 9,029 x 100ft runway length enables heavily laden freighters to perform long-haul flights, it does have some limitations. It is difficult to predict what will be the dominant freighter aircraft in service by the time of Manston’s predicted 2023 opening but, in terms of numbers, it seems certain to be either the Boeing 747-400F, 747-8F or 777F.
Using today’s most prevalent type – the 747-400F – as an example, the runway is not long enough to enable a fully laden aircraft to fly non-stop to any destination. Nevertheless, Manston’s runway does put numerous long-haul destinations on the map with a significant payload and more efficient aircraft will undoubtedly enter service in due course. It’s also worth recalling that, to date, the airport has handled far more inbound freight than it has sent out.
Mr Freudmann noted: “We have approached this [project] on the basis that effectively there are no limitations, as the assumption is that as freighters get lighter and more efficient, they will need less length of runway to take off.” He said RSP sees “the Far East, the United States, South America, the Middle East… and Africa as the obvious markets, certainly as far as inbound perishables are concerned.”
“If you say to freight operators and their freight forwarders that there are unlimited slots here, you can come in whenever you like, you would be surprised at the response you get. We will be building up a patchwork of flights to and from various parts of the world.”
Today, the former passenger terminal is just a shell. All the operational equipment was ripped out when the airport closed. Electrical cabling hangs down from the ceiling and, apart from one of the roof supports that still marks the way to the former Departures area and a map of the globe in the centre of the floor, there’s little else but the bare walls.
Built in the late 1980s, it was always a modest structure, but it did its job. Former customers that I chatted with during my July visit recalled their delight at arriving home just 15 minutes after their aircraft had touched down – and half of that time was taken up by the drive home. The car park was immediately outside the terminal’s front door, so no courtesy buses were required; you were quickly on your way. However, that would not be possible today due to the security distancing rules in place – the access road, at just 15ft away from the front door is simply too close for today’s regulations.
However, despite the promising results achieved by KLM’s Amsterdam service, no other carrier could see the potential of offering other routes. There were obviously not enough happy travellers to sustain a viable passenger operation during Infratil’s ownership and, following the airport’s sale to businesswoman Ann Gloag, KLM said it dropped its successful Amsterdam service due to uncertainties about the airport’s future. The Dutch flag carrier performed the last scheduled passenger service from Manston on April 9, 2014. Commenting upon this possible market, Mr Freudmann explained that although RSP does not expect to have passenger services for several years yet, it plans to demolish the existing building and replace it with a new facility nearby. He added: “That will be built when we’re ready to receive passenger aircraft but, post-COVID-19, there will be two major considerations [to be taken into account]. First, the passenger carriers will still be reshaping their businesses and, second, we don’t know what design differences there might be for terminal designers to take account of if new procedures are introduced. So, for the moment, we’re going to wait and watch, but I think we will be ready for passenger services in, say, four years’ time. We will be building something that can accommodate 1.5 million passengers [per year]. That’s the limit of our ambitions for passengers.”
At the time of writing in August 2020, Ramsgate’s town council had voted to financially support a judicial review application of the Secretary of State’s decision to grant the Manston development consent and this process is now under way.