THE man in charge of Durham Tees Valley Airport insists it has a long term future.

Robert Hough, CBE, chairman of Durham Tees Valley Peel Airports, has committed his company to the airport for at least five years and is planning for at least ten years.

That's despite a serious decline in passenger numbers from a peak of more than 900,000 in 2006 to under 150,000 last year.

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DTVA was recently identified as a "key asset" by Lord Heseltine in a special report into trying to breath economic life into the Tees Valley following the closure of Redcar steelworks.

Addressing widespread fears that the airport could close, Mr Hough said the current planning application to Darlington Borough Council to build 350 homes as well as leisure and business facilities to the north of the airfield is expected to trigger a multi-million pound cash windfall, if approved.

All the money would be reinvested in the business. He said Peel Airports has demonstrated its commitment by spending £34m since 2003 on running costs and investments and is expected to spend a further £14m by 2020.

In his first interview with The Northern Echo in four years, Mr Hough said the plan was to attract more transport and logistics businesses to the south of the site and opt out of a generous workers' pension scheme to save money.

It is also hoped that better train links and facilities may encourage more passengers while an improving economy may lead to an upturn in demand for more flights.

He said other airports, including Newcastle and Leeds/Bradford, have far higher passenger numbers but often at the cost of losing more money due to increased costs of hosting more flights.

For example, Leeds/Bradford, which has about 3.5m passengers a year, also has higher losses, he added. Airlines want to use larger aircraft at fewer, larger airports to cut costs and that development within the industry has badly hit DTVA.

"We are here for the long term but we need the right framework to operate. When the economy is stronger things can happen naturally. Our airport can have a great future, please use it."

The most controversial part of the airport's plan is to pull out of a local government pension scheme known as the Teesside Pension Fund (TPF). The Peel Group owns about 89 per cent of Durham Tees Valley Airport and other 11 per cent is owned by Stockton, Darlington, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Hartlepool councils. They introduced the pension scheme in the years before Peel took over.

However, Mr Hough said airport's multi-million pound liabilities to the TPF for about 30 workers or half the airport's staff, were unsustainable and "an anomaly" and should be met by the councils.

Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington Borough Council and in charge of Transport at the newly-formed Tees Valley Combined Authority, said he hoped that if the proposed electrification of the Middlesbrough to Northallerton railway line goes ahead, a loop could be added to the line to accommodate a new rail stop at the airport to help improve passenger numbers.

The Save Teesside Airport campaign group, which has nearly 7,000 members of its Facebook site, has written to Lord Heseltine to criticise the Peel group and the Tees Valley councils.

The letter said that Peel paid £500,000 for its shares in 2003 but if all the land was sold for housing it would be worth between £223m and £486m based on current estimates and if was sold for industrial development it would be worth £163m.

Despite that, the Government had paid £5m for a new link road and the former development agency One NorthEast has paid £2m for another entrance road.

The letter, which also criticised the company for the dramatic fall in passenger numbers, said: "It is difficult to see what more our councils can do, yet the best that has been obtained from Peel in return for all this generosity with our money is to keep the airport open for another five years. It is easy to see which way this is going."

DTVA currently loses about £2.1m a year.