We all know that flying isn’t good for the environment, but it seems to be inescapable. Business, study, research, culture and tourism all rely on easy access to the world, and for any immigrant, expat or anyone else in a diaspora, no amount of Skype can substitute a proper family visit. All This means a good airport can be a real benefit to a region.
Northern England has seven international airports, plus a smattering of domestic and private ones, all competing to serve the 18m or so people across the region. So, how do they all stack up? There’s no such thing as a nice airport - but is there a least un-nice one?
(Note: We’re ranking airports with at least one regularly scheduled international flight only. Sorry Blackpool and Carlisle.)
7. Humberside (HUY)
If the car park’s that empty, the public transport links must be great, right? Oh. Image: JThomas/Wikimedia Commons.
In the 1970s, the government briefly experimented with merging the East Riding of Yorkshire and the northern part Lincolnshire into a new county called Humberside. It was wildly unpopular and swiftly abolished, but unfortunately this airport was stuck with the name and no-one cared enough to change it – perhaps because it’s the wrong side of the Humber to be Hull Airport and Scunthorpe Airport would cause problems with booking systems.
Many flights aren’t to airports at all but to oil rigs, and the departures board often shows such exotic locations as “Centrica Rough 8A”, “West Sole Alpha” and “Neptune”. Few flights, poor transport links, and overshadowed by nearby Doncaster-Sheffield and East Midlands.
6. Durham Tees Valley (MME)
The way the sign breaks “Tees Valley” over two lines is perhaps the airport’s worst sin. Image: AdamBro/Wikimedia Commons.
The only reason Tees Valley isn’t last is that I don’t believe in kicking someone while they’re down. So short on money that it makes you buy a £6 ticket to go through security, the last time I flew from Durham my 10:40AM flight was the last departure of the entire day. In theory it has a railway station, but only one train a week actually stops there, and it’s one of the least used stations in the country.
This is the airport that the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley Ben Houchen wants to take over – you know its bad when even the Tories are calling for public ownership.
It’s not quite as useless as it sounds, if only because the flights to Amsterdam link it to a lot of long-haul destinations, and the chemical industry is big enough to support regular flights to the oil industry hub Aberdeen.
Not a lot going on, but good news if you love Amsterdam. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.
Aviation masochists can actually fly from Durham Tees Valley to Humberside, a journey of about 75 miles. It’s meant to be just a stopover from Aberdeen to Humberside, but maybe there are people who hate Yorkshire so much that they’d rather fly from County Durham to Lincolnshire than step foot on Yorkshire soil.
5. Doncaster-Sheffield (Robin Hood) (DSA)
An old picture of the airport in wackier days. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have any newer photos, which is damning in itself. Image: Wendy North/Wikimedia Commons.
The only reason most people outside the area will have heard of Doncaster-Sheffield is that it got embroiled in two daft arguments: one with the people of Nottingham, about whether the airport deserves the name ‘Robin Hood’ (the airport has now taken him out of its official name, but still claims him on some signs), and one where tbe authorities had a Twitter user arrested for cracking a joke about “blowing the airport sky high”.
It's not bad for destinations – as well as package holidays, it’s carved out a niche serving regional airports in Eastern Europe, making it a popular choice for family visits – but it's not easy to get to. For reasons that probably make perfect sense to an accountant, the bus from Sheffield to the airport only runs in the evenings, leaving you a bit stuck if you’re aiming for the 10:50 flight to Paris. Extend the Supertram to the airport and I’ll bump it up a place.
4. Liverpool John Lennon (LPL)
I could post another boring airport sign, or I could post a YELLOW SUBMARINE. Image: MainFrame/Wikimedia Commons.
The airport's slogan, taken from John Lennon’s Imagine, is “Above us, only sky”, which I’m pretty sure makes it the world’s only airport to officially declare God doesn’t exist.
On paper, Liverpool is brilliant. It’s well placed, with good transport links (it’s just a short bus ride away from Liverpool South Parkway station) in a city that’s booming and becoming a major cultural destination. In practice, it never quite lives up to its promise. A lot of low-budget airlines and package holiday operators serve it, but it doesn’t have any major airline hub connections, and very few direct flights to places that aren’t sunny Mediterranean resorts.
If the Liverpool City Region is ever going to really succeed, it needs an airline like British Airways, KLM or Icelandic to step in and open the airport to the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
3. Manchester (MAN)
There aren’t any better photos of Manchester Airport. I really did look. It’s just an ugly airport. Image: Chrish_99/Wikimedia Commons.
The big one. Manchester wants to be the Heathrow of the North, and it offers three terminals, flights to Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, and top-notch transport links – impressively, as well as a tram, there are direct trains to every major town and city in Northern England.
But no-one ever likes big airports, do they? It takes a long time to get around and the queues at passport control are usually nightmarish. On top of that, its slogan – “We know you have a choice” – just rubs me up the wrong way: for most destinations outside Europe, Northerners don’t really have a choice.
If HS2 ever gets built, there will be direct high-speed trains from Manchester Airport to the capital and who knows, it might get renamed ‘London Manchester Airport’ and pretend it’s not located up north at all.
2. Leeds-Bradford (LBA)
Doncaster-Sheffield should sue over that “Yorkshire’s Airport” slogan. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.
The Goldilocks airport. Not so small that no-one uses it, not so big that everyone uses it.
A wide variety of destinations (including being one of the few British airports to offer flights to Mecca for Hajj pilgrims), and yet you can be through security and passport control in minutes. Being up in the moors means your view on takeoff is gorgeous (although it also brings some delays in the winter due to fog), and by car you can be in the middle of Leeds or Bradford in 20 minutes.
Only problem? Leeds-Bradford is located right between two railway lines, and neither one is quite well served enough. You can get a slow “Flying Tiger” bus into the cities, or take the bus to nearby Guiseley and catch a train from there, but it’s a bit awkward. Stop faffing about, build the direct rail link, and give Leeds-Bradford a fighting chance to become north’s very best airport.
1. Newcastle (NCL)
There’s a definite “alien bunker in a low-budget sci-fi” aesthetic going on here. Image: Roger Cornfoot/Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve complained that often the north’s airports aren’t properly linked into bus or rail networks, but there are no transport problems here. Hop off the Metro, cross the bridge, and you’re at departures. With plenty of European flights, and a few to Florida and the Caribbean – plus a regular Emirates flight to their Dubai hub if you need to go really long-haul – it has probably the best offering in the north after Manchester, but without the sprawl and crowds.
If it has any problems, it’s that it’s a bit too far north. This means it’s close enough to the border that it competes with Edinburgh, which is bigger and offers even more destinations. But this just means Geordies are spoiled for choice, and can be proud to have an airport that holds its own against bigger rivals – and which has earned its crown as northern England’s best airport.
Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur.