FOR more than half a century, Teesside Airport has had a special love affair with people across the North East.

Through the highs, lows, name changes and political infighting, there has been a constant desire for it to succeed. For many, it was not just about an airport flying holidaymakers across the globe, it was a sign that Teesside was valued and had a purpose.

Read more: Teesside Airport's Heathrow route is AXED after sharp rise in costs

At the centre of it all was its London connection. It has been on and off over the years, and it is no coincidence that the time the route was grounded coincided with the airport’s toughest moments.

The airport, known by its original Teesside name, was opened by Princess Margarethe of Sweden on November 1, 1966 and was bought by the councils of Tees Valley and North Yorkshire for £314,000. Flights to Heathrow began three years later with British Midland.

The terminal was designed to handle 350,000 passengers, but through the heydays of the 80s and 90s then came the airport’s peak in 2006, when more than 900,000 had passed through its doors.

But fast forward six years, and those numbers were down to just 140,000. In the middle of all that, BMI withdrew the airport’s final Heathrow service in 2009, and the site, then controversially known as Durham Tees Valley Airport, was relying on Aberdeen and Amsterdam routes to keep it operational.

The airport’s rebirth, back with the Teesside name after an election pledge by Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen in 2017, is well documented. At the centre of the plan was the return of a London flight.

And indeed they came. First to London City, and then Heathrow, the jewel in the crown.

But just two years on from the announcement, both routes have been shelved. Is this a sign of the airport on the decline again?

Read more: 'Daylight robbery': Tees Valley Mayor launches scathing attack on Heathrow after Teesside flight axed

The environment surrounding the airline industry is very different to what it was in 2009. After two pandemic years, the demand for domestic travel is nowhere near where it was. And it may never return. Many of Teesside’s holiday flights have sold out, but the same appetite does not exist for UK routes.

Heathrow’s charges aren’t unique to Teesside. Airlines across the country reacted with dismay to the price hike, which could allow the UK’s biggest airport to increase fees by up to 56% by 2023 as it seeks to recoup losses from the pandemic. Such impact has also resulted in Heathrow charging an insane £8.30 for a pint of beer as it desperately tries to bring in more cash.

If anything, the presence of a London flight from Teesside was more about status for the Tees Valley. What does it therefore say about the Government’s levelling up agenda if you have to travel to Newcastle or Leeds to fly to the capital?

This, on top of shelved plans for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, and potential cuts to rail services to the capital from Darlington still looming in the background, is a poor reflection of the Conservatives’ attitude to their flagship policy that won them so many seats in 2019. How can levelling up be taken seriously if they can’t do the basics and address transport connectivity between North and South?

And so the political argument over the future of Teesside Airport is reignited. Labour have again said Mr Houchen should turn his attention to a world class public transport system and not “throw good money after bad down the Teesside Airport drain”.

Read more: Bitter row reignited over Teesside Airport's future after Heathrow flight axed

Any suggestion of withdrawing funding remains a politically risky strategy, given the will from the public for the airport to succeed. But at the same time it cannot simply be a black hole with unlimited amounts of public money ploughed into it. And there needs to be an open and honest dialogue with the voters – they want a thriving airport, but how much is too much to spend to make that happen?

Its recent financial figures, with the backdrop of the Covid pandemic as a disclaimer, looked alarming, but the published rescue plan always maintained it would get worse before it got better. In the coming years we’ll see if the projections turn into reality.

But it also highlights why, ironically, the long term plan for Teesside Airport cannot just be about flights. It will never be the size of Manchester or Birmingham, and there is a celling for how much route growth can be achieved, so there needs to be other income streams that will help pay back the huge sums of cash that have been pumped in, such as the work on the business park on land to the south.

Whether it’s the development of Teesworks or bringing the Treasury to Darlington, Mr Houchen always highlighted the direct London flight as being a central part of making Teesside attractive for jobs and investment, so this is undoubtedly a blow.

But it would be too early to conclude Teesside Airport is on track for the same downward spiral that took place last time it lost its capital connectivity.

It has ridden out the turbulence before and can do so again.

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