9 Aug 2005
In August 1935 Tiger Moth and Westland Wallace biplanes spiralled lazily over Prestwick. Today the air is filled with the awesome sound of mighty jumbo jets and Boeing 737s as they take off from the busy airport. Glasgow Prestwick, Scotland's low-cost gateway, celebrates its seventieth anniversary today (Tuesday August 9) and its future has never looked brighter.
In the year that Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister and war clouds gathered over Europe, Prestwick was opened as a grass field by the Duke of Hamilton and Group Captain David McIntyre, the first men to fly over Mount Everest two years previously. Today's Chief Executive, Steve Fitzgerald, says the seventieth anniversary provides an opportunity both to look back and look forward.
"The airport is a phenomenal Scottish success story made possible by the vision of its pioneers seventy years ago. Today, we are one of Europe's fastest-growing airports, we employ some 500 people, we contribute some £120m to the Scottish economy and we have helped to create some 3500 new jobs around the country. We're serving Scotland spectacularly well."
The story of Glasgow Prestwick International Airport began in 1934 with a few small planes using "the Meadows" at the end of Monkton Village. But aircraft were on or near the site around 1913, a mere ten years after the Wright Brothers first took to the air.
In the pre-war years, the site developed as a training airfield. David McIntyre set up Scottish Aviation Ltd in August 1935 and acquired 348 acres of Ayrshire countryside. Prestwick Airport was now firmly on the map.
A 6600ft runway was built in 1941 and at the end of the war the Government confirmed Prestwick would operate as an international transatlantic airport. In 1959 a new 9800 ft runway opened to handle aircraft operated by airlines such as BOAC, SAS, KLM and Pan Am, and at that time the airport was handling some 243,000 passengers annually. By 1963 that figure had increased to 600,000.
To maintain the airport's place at the forefront of modern aviation, the Government announced plans in 1958 for a new terminal building, freight building, runway extension, control tower and loop road around the airport. The latter was necessary because the main road out of Prestwick towards Monkton passed across the runway!
By April 1962 the new control tower had been built and, in September 1964, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother officially opened the present terminal building. The foresight of the airport architects and planners in 1964 in designing a superb facility capable of handling 3 million passengers a year now looks certain to be justified.
"The airport isn't just a transport interchange but a vital catalyst for regional and national prosperity," said Mr Fitzgerald. "We've had consistent double-digit growth in the last twelve months and this rate of growth we expect to handle 2.7million passengers in the current financial year. We'll be at over 4 million by the end of the decade.
"The reasons for our growth are simple. Glasgow Prestwick is Scotland's only low-cost airport and home to Ryanair, Europe's largest low fares airline. We have great year-round daily connections to attractive destinations such as Barcelona, Milan, Rome, Paris, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Oslo, Dublin, London and Cardiff. We are highly convenient in terms of access by road, especially with the new M77 bringing passengers here in just 30 minutes.
"We are the only Scottish airport to have its own railway station, with more than 30% of our passengers arriving by rail, and you can walk from the train to the plane in minutes. At Glasgow Prestwick we make the whole flying experience easy and affordable."
The airport is owned by Infratil, a specialist investor in infrastructure and utility assets. The company is listed on the New Zealand Exchange and owns airports in New Zealand and Europe as well as electricity, waste to energy and port investments in New Zealand and Australia.
This spring the airport re-branded itself as "Glasgow Prestwick - Pure dead Brilliant". This reflects the aim of the new management team to ensure passengers' experience of the airport is "brilliant" in every regard.
"We are focused on three main drivers of value," says Fitzgerald. "Passenger growth, concession revenue and freight volumes are key to our long-term success."
Glasgow Prestwick has many advantages - a large 340-hectare site, no curfew allowing 24-hour operations, minimal fog, two runways, one of which is almost 3000 metres long allowing unrestricted operation including full-range Boeing 747s, and good road and rail connections to Scotland and England.
"Thanks to Glasgow Prestwick, Scots can fly to attractive European destinations, sometimes for little more than the price of a taxi ride, while low-cost air access is bringing hundreds of thousands of high-spending European visitors into Scotland. Business travellers particularly enjoy having direct services to and from many key European cities, with low fares an added bonus."
He went on: "Glasgow Prestwick is currently Scotland's fastest-growing airport. The first stage of a £3m refurbishment has transformed the airport, giving it a bright and contemporary look. It's a magnificent asset, the jewel in Scotland's tourism crown. The Duke of Hamilton and Group Captain McIntyre, who established Prestwick seventy years ago, would be astounded by its success today but would, I am sure, be extremely proud of what they started."
Later this year, the sons of the founders - Lord James Douglas-Hamilton MSP and Dougal McIntyre - are coming to the airport for a special nostalgic night when the heady days of 1930s aviation will be recalled. Lord James will screen excerpts from a 1930s film, "Wings over Everest", which dramatically tells the story of how his father and Group Captain McIntyre became the first men to fly over the world's highest mountain.
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