Skip to content

Business & Economy

Report: ‘A success for years to come’

Learning to fly again

Across the other side of the terminal car park at Teesside International Airport stand scores of mobile holiday homes.

There was a time, not too long ago, when taking the motorhome or caravan up and down the country for a summer break appeared a far more likely option than using the airport’s limited services.

As carriers departed for good, the base’s main building went from annually welcoming nearly one million passengers to around a tenth of its peak figure, with a masterplan drawn up by its former owner Peel to sell a sizeable chunk of the site for housing.

However, with Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen having wrested control from the operator, the base is being reinvigorated, with revived sunshine getaways matched by terminal upgrades and significant investment into a huge business park said to hold the potential for as many as 4400 jobs.

And he says the turnaround is on track, with projections estimating it will return to profit within three years.

The airport has suffered a number of false starts.

It appears now, though, that the runway is clearing for it to take off again.

Teesside International Airport has flown through a few storms in recent years, with carrier losses and associated lower passenger numbers compounded by stalled revamp plans and the more recent impact of COVID-19. Now, though, the scene looks somewhat brighter, with significant investment luring back holiday services, upgrading terminal facilities and laying the foundations for greater commercial revenue. Here, Steven Hugill charts the site’s trajectory and hears from Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen – the man who took the airport back into public ownership – about why it is ready to fly to profitable heights again.

Flashes of bronze speckle in the sunlight, accentuating the creases and pulls of a military uniform.

Right hand gloved and fixed in salute, and an oxygen mask hanging loosely below his left cheek, a crewman stares into the distance.

A guardian of its skies, the immortalised figure’s eyes trace every plane as it rises from the runway at Teesside International Airport.

Today, his address provides him with a partial block from the glare of the lowering afternoon sunshine.

For a while, though, it was more than the bright light of summer that threatened to obscure his view.

The fate of the airport, home to memorialised pilot officer Andrew Mynarski during the Second World War – who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for attempting to save a comrade during a fated 1944 French sortie – was very much in the balance.

After metamorphosing from RAF Middleton St George – where Mynarski took off for the last time with fellow members of the Royal Canadian Air Force – into a commercial hub in the 1960s, the airport grew steadily, providing travellers with a gateway to faraway sun-kissed shores.

It reached its peak halfway through the first decade of the new millennium, when annual passenger numbers climbed to nearly one million.

Fast-forward a decade, though, and demand had nosedived to a mere tenth of that figure.

The loss of blue ribbon domestic flights, including a Heathrow Airport link, and the departure of holiday services, left a skeleton itinerary, the bones of which were flights to Amsterdam and Aberdeen, and a library-like terminal building.

To arrest the slide, former operator Peel – which failed to endear itself to many when changing the site’s name to Durham Tees Valley Airport in 2004 – rolled out a blueprint for transformation.

Labelled as a masterplan, and unfurled after unsuccessful attempts to secure cash from the Government’s Regional Growth Fund, it included proposals for hundreds of homes – right in Mynarski’s line of vision – and a commercial hub on the opposite side of its runway.

Launched under the premise of making the airport more self-sustainable against a backdrop of fewer passenger flights, it said the south side development would diversify income streams by providing bases for engineering and distribution operators.

The vision, however, quickly clouded over.

Despite much positive talk, and a PR event in late 2017, titled ‘flying for the future’ – which got local business leaders to sign a board pledging their allegiance to the site during an event held, ironically, in its departure lounge – Peel’s plans remained grounded.

The landscape around, however, was changing.

As Peel passed around the permanent marker and its bosses blinked from the flashes of photographers’ lights, freshly-installed Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen was seeking to make good on an election promise to bring the airport back into public hands.

A battle quickly ensued, which turned into a war of words, with the regeneration boss meeting a ‘hands-off’ warning with stinging rebukes of Peel’s investment strategy.

A year later, and a £40 million deal had been struck to buy Peel’s 89 per cent share in the airport and 819 acres of land, with the agreement including a commitment from Mayor Houchen to throw out Peel’s housing scheme.

And, says the development chief, the takeover saved it from extinction, citing Peel’s travails at Doncaster Sheffield Airport, which it recently admitted “may no longer be commercially viable”.

He says: “Bringing the airport back into public ownership was not just about revitalising it – it was about securing it for generations to come. 

“There is absolutely no doubt that if we hadn’t, our airport would have closed, and we would have been left with a housing estate. 

“You only have to look at what’s happening at Doncaster Sheffield to realise that could have been us.”

Mayor Houchen wasted little time in removing all traces of the airport’s former owner’s fingerprints, with the site swiftly rebranded as Teesside International, and Durham Tees Valley’s red and blue colour scheme swapped for a blue and green palette.

A new logo was created, with a tailfin incorporating the outline of nearby landmark Roseberry Topping, while on the runway, household names Ryanair and TUI were unveiled as carriers, the latter returning after a near ten-year hiatus, to deliver sunshine services to, among other getaway hotspots, Alicante and Majorca. 

However, take-off wasn’t entirely smooth.

Just like the hill reflected in its new marketing, the airport was left with its own peak to get up and over when the turbulence of COVID-19 hit, the effects of which were highlighted recently when it was confirmed a further £20 million of taxpayer cash will be pumped into the site to offset nearly £12 million losses.

The airport suffered another blow in June this year, when the return of a popular air show fell flat after significant traffic congestion forced many day-trippers to abandon their journeys, with bosses subsequently admitting to serious organisational “lessons to be learned” if the venture is to return again.

However, Mayor Houchen says the picture remains positive, with projections pointing to a return to profitability within the next three years, explaining some of the financial reverses are accounted for by outlays to transform the site’s departure lounge, revive its retail space, add a spa and build a landside bar and viewing platform.

Offices have also been created for Mayor Houchen and Tees Valley Combined Authority’s army of staff within the bowels of the airport.

He says: “The past couple of years have been incredibly difficult for the global aviation industry – indeed, the Airport Operators Association has reported UK airports suffered to the tune of £10 billion during the pandemic. 

“Teesside was no different, as lockdowns came and went, and travel restrictions changed day-by-day. 

“But we took it as an opportunity to develop our terminal with a £3 million upgrade, retain each and every one of our staff and secure more routes and operators, so we would be ready to come back stronger than ever. 

“Putting our losses into context and looking at what we’ve achieved, I’m delighted with our progress.

“We’ve developed the public-facing side of our terminal, and now have an airport fit for the 21st century.”

However, while the base now has an environment for the modern-day holiday passenger, Mayor Houchen says the renovation is just one cog in a larger wheel of fortune.

Central to its continued progress, he says, is its wider industry offer, with ground broken on a link road to the £200 million Southside Business Park, the site’s flagship bricks and mortar commercial scheme Mayor Houchen believes has the potential to create as many as 4400 jobs.

Delivering, he says, where Peel could not, the twice-elected regeneration boss says the development will provide 1.9 million sq ft of distribution and industrial space, which will be augmented by the airport’s place within Teesside’s freeport, which affords tenants advantages such as tax reliefs.

Furthermore, global firm Willis Lease Finance Corporation – alongside wholly-owned subsidiary Willis Aviation Services – recently unveiled £25 million plans to create a 200-job aircraft maintenance base on land formerly set aside for housing.

The company, which already carries out maintenance, storage and disassembly from a hangar at the hub, has also taken over its Jet Centre, from where it hopes to build on existing ground handling services for business, private aviation, military and cargo flights.

And Draken Europe – formerly known as Cobham Aviation – is building a second hangar to continue a longstanding relationship with the airport.

Set to create as many as 30 jobs, bosses say it will extend the use of Dassault Falcon training planes, which have been a fixture across Teesside’s skies for a number of years.

They also say the new, 5000sq ft hangar has brought the Alca L-159E ‘Honey Badger’ combat jet to the region for the first time, adding it will support the delivery of further contracts with organisations including the Ministry of Defence and US Air Force.

And Mayor Houchen reveals further talks are underway “with a number of potential investors over both the business park and freeport”.

He says: “I’ve always said our airport will need more than just holiday flights, as important as they are.

“And now we’ve transformed the terminal, we’re turning our attention to our land and assets. 

“This will help further diversify our revenue streams and protect our finances, while supporting more local, national and international businesses and creating good-quality, well-paid jobs. 

“Our cargo handling facility is up and running and the airport’s designation as a customs zone of the freeport will give businesses benefits such as VAT suspension and duty deferral, providing a huge incentive for manufacturing and aviation.”

And he says the momentum will help the site return to the black within three years. 

He adds: “You see phrases like ‘vanity project’ bandied about by a vocal minority, who have always wanted our airport to fail, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

“An airport is critical for our region, so local people can get away on holiday.

“But it’s critical too so we can be a truly outward looking region, to grab the opportunities Brexit and freeport status presents, drive inward investment and create jobs. 

“Only with quality air links can we attract global businesses to our region, and they’re increasingly standing up and taking notice of what we’re doing. 

“We set out with a ten-year turnaround plan and, despite a pandemic, we’re still in a very strong position. 

“Our plan is on track, and we’re projected to come back into profit in the next three years. 

“Nobody is pretending the last two years haven’t been challenging, but Teesside’s size, adaptability and huge site potential has helped shore us up during this time, and will make sure we’re a success for years to come.”


Ben HouchenTees Valley Mayor

“Bringing the airport back into public ownership was not just about revitalising it – it was about securing it for generations to come. 

“There is absolutely no doubt that if we hadn’t, our airport would have closed, and we would have been left with a housing estate.”