DALLAS – Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA) launched services in 2005. Seventeen years later, DSA has seen its final passenger flights and faces an uncertain future.
Like many UK civilian airports, DSA started life as a former Royal Air Force base known as RAF Finningley. During its military years, its main runway (02/20) was extended to 9,500 feet (2,900m), allowing Finningley to become a long-range nuclear bomb base.
This saw the posting of Avro Vulcan bombers, one of which – XH558, the first to enter service – was displayed at the airport. The runway also led to DSA becoming a designated Space Shuttle emergency landing site.
In 1996, the base was decommissioned by the RAF as part of the force’s defense cuts. The airfield was then used for flight training and private flying.
A few years later, Peel Holdings, a UK property, and transportation company that owned Liverpool John Lennon Airport (LPL), decided to purchase the airfield for around £78 million (US$88.7m).
The company had big plans for Finningley. They had watched how nearby Sheffield City Airport (SZD) had been unable to attract the growing number of low-cost airlines due to its short runway length.
The plan was simple, transform the former RAF base into a thriving low-cost airport, similar to what it had done at LPL. The new facility would be capable of handling over two million passengers per year and 62,000 tonnes of freight. In June 1999, Peel unveiled plans for a £30 million (US$33.9m) development.
Fast forward to April 2004, and construction of the £80m (US$91.5m), the four-story terminal building had begun in earnest and was ready to welcome its first passengers a year later. It became the first new commercial airport to open in the UK in 50 years.
Christened Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA), whose name initially caused much controversy. Robin Hood was a legendary English hero, more associated with Nottingham than Doncaster or Sheffield. Of course, Nottingham had its own airport, East Midlands (EMA).
So controversial was the name that a petition was started, in which over 10,000 people put their names.
Doncaster Sheffield’s maiden flight took off on April 28, 2005, bound for Palma (PMI). It was operated by Thomsonfly (BY), the low-cost subsidiary of TUI Group, established in 2004.
Thomsonfly initially offered numerous city routes, including Amsterdam (AMS), Dublin (DUB), Paris (CDG), Pisa (PSA), Prague (PRG), and Valencia (VLC).
However, it soon dropped many of these services after ending its low-cost operation, favoring more bucket and spade Mediterranean routes. In the Summer of 2007, it launched long-haul flights to Orlando (MCO), Cancún (CUN), and Puerto Plata (POP). These lasted just one season before moving to EMA.
Airlines soon saw potential in the airport, and numerous routes began. Ryanair (FR) launched Dublin (DUB) in April 2005, followed by Thomas Cook (MT), which commenced a weekly flight to Monastir (MIR) in July. The airline would later offer summer-only flights to Dalaman (DLM) and PMI.
For winter 2005/2006, easyJet (U2) launched a seasonal service to Geneva (GVA). Flybe (BE) also started a daily service to Belfast City (BHD) and a seasonal flight to Jersey (JER) in 2006. Charter flights were also operated by BH Air (8H) and Pegasus Airlines (PC).
Despite projections of serving at least a million passengers during its first year, the actual number was 899,000, making it the 23rd busiest in the UK. In 2007, the airport surpassed the one million passenger mark.
This was helped by the arrival of Wizz Air (W6) in July 2006. Its first destination was Gdansk (GDN), followed by Katowice (KTW), Poznan (POZ), Warsaw (WAW), and Wroclaw (WRO).
Other routes later included Sofia (SOF), Cluj (CLJ), Lublin (LUZ), and Košice (KSC).
Ryanair expanded its network from DSA, adding Alicante (ALC), Pisa (PSA), Girona (GRO), and Tenerife (TFS). But in August 2009, it announced its 34th base at nearby Leeds Bradford Airport (LBA). FR subsequently dropped all routes at DSA apart from a seasonal, three-times-weekly summer ALC flight, which was also later axed.
Long-haul flights were introduced by Flyglobespan (Y2) for the summer of 2007 with a weekly service to Hamilton International Airport (YHM). Sadly passenger numbers failed to meet expectations, and Y2 dropped the route after just one season.
At the time, DSA CEO David Ryall said, “When Peel Airports purchased the site, we always said we would bring long haul flights to a region that had previously been underserved by airports that were still restricted on the aircraft they could handle. Robin Hood Airport has the capability to handle the largest commercial aircraft that is in operation today.”
Pakistani carrier Shaheen Air (NL) also announced its intention to commence twice-weekly flights to Islamabad (ISB) in late 2007. However, the service never took off.
In December 2009, easyJet (U2) announced it would launch flights from DSA. From April 2010, the airline would station a single Airbus A319, serving Amsterdam (AMS), Barcelona (BCN), Faro (FAO), Palma (PMI), and Prague (PRG). The new routes were expected to carry 300,000 passengers during the first year.
In January 2011, the airline canceled all flights.
The global economic downturn at the time had a significant impact on DSA. From 2007’s passenger peak, numbers began to fall year in and year out for the next five years. This led to Peel Holdings announcing in 2010 that it would sell 65% of its shares in all three of its airports—DSA, LPL, and Durham Tees Valley (MME) to Vantage Airport Group. But in January 2013, it reacquired the shares in both DSA and MME for an undisclosed sum.
Other airlines would dip their toe in the water at DSA. Aer Arran (RE), operating under the Aer Lingus Regional (EI) brand, took on the DUB route for the 2010 summer season. However, the route was dropped after a few months.
They returned for a second attempt when Stobart Air (RE) took on the franchise in May 2015 with a five-weekly rotation. It too was dropped a short while later.
In February 2014, Links Air (W2) announced its intention to make DSA its fourth base. A single BAe Jetstream 31 would be stationed, offering flights to Belfast City (BHD) eleven times per week and the Isle of Man (IOM) four weekly from April 2015.
Steve Gill, DSA’s then Managing Director, said, “This is fantastic news for the airport and for Yorkshire passengers. These two new routes are a great addition to our offering. Belfast will be a fantastic business route with people being able to set off in the morning and be in Belfast city center for the start of the business day.”
Sadly on October 21, 2015, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) suspended W2’s operating certificate over safety concerns. The airline was liquidated a few months later.
Ten Year Anniversary
In 2015, DSA celebrated its tenth anniversary. Since opening, Peel had invested around £150 million (US$169.7m), and the airport had welcomed some 8.4 million passengers. Another new airline arrived, Nouvelair Tunisie (BJ), which commenced a summer-only service to Enfidha (NBE).
Meanwhile, bmi Regional (BM) also applied to the UK Governments Regional Air Connectivity Fund for “start-up aid” to create a new daily route from DSA to Frankfurt (FRA). Sadly the funds were not granted, and the service never launched.
A year later, DSA handled 1.25 million passengers, representing a year-on-year increase of 47%, making the airport the fastest-growing in the UK. 2016 was also the year DSA was rebranded, dropping the controversial ‘Robin Hood’ from its title and becoming, simply, Doncaster Sheffield Airport.
The growth in passengers was helped by the opening of a base by Flybe (BE) on March 24, 2016. Two 118-seat Embraer E195s would operate nine routes, including AMS, ALC, Berlin (TXL), Dusseldorf (DUS), Faro (FAO), JER, Malaga (AGP), Newquay (NQY) and CDG. This offered an additional 500,000 seats from the airport.
Mr. Gill said, “This is a transformational announcement which brings massively enhanced connectivity to the Sheffield City Region’s airport. These two new aircraft will make available half a million new flight seats and are expected to grow our passenger traffic by around 30%.”
Insufficient Transport Infrastructure
However, one distinct disadvantage for DSA compared to its nearby rivals was its sub-standard transport connections. Discussions around constructing a loop line and station linking DSA to the East Coast Main Line railway had been going on since the airport opened.
The 4.5-mile (7km) track would diverge from the East Coast Main Line south of Doncaster to provide fast links to the airport from South and West Yorkshire. Freight traffic was also part of the proposal, with sidings envisaged north of the terminal, which would have helped the airport’s cargo expansion plans. DSA submitted planning permission in March 2020. Sadly, these were rejected by the Department for Transport (DfT) in November 2020.
Road links improved with the opening of the £58 million ‘Great Yorkshire Way’ in February 2016. The new road allowed passengers to access the nearby M18 motorway within five minutes.
In March 2018, DSA unveiled its ‘Vision Plan,’ a new Masterplan from 2018-2037. This looked at growing passenger numbers to 4.7 million by 2037, with the potential to handle up to 7.8 million by doubling the size of its terminal building. Cargo capacity would increase, with DSA capable of handling 70,000 tonnes.
However, in April 2019, BE announced it would close its DSA base at the beginning of the 2019/2020 winter season. A spokesperson for DSA said, “Flybe have operated services at various levels from Doncaster Sheffield Airport since 2006. Flybe have recently changed ownership with future plans to restructure including a move away from jet flying to stabilise the business across their network. We are working closely with Flybe and expect them to continue operating at DSA beyond the current summer and winter 19/20 schedule which will be on sale shortly.”
TUI meanwhile reaffirmed its commitment to DSA, relaunching long-haul flights to Orlando (SFB) on May 4, 2019. The weekly summer-only service would be flown by the airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners. It also announced plans to relaunch CUN in 2020 and added Antalya (AYT), Bodrum (BJV), Kos (KGS), Pula (PUY) and NBE to the network.
Chris Harcombe, Aviation Development Director at DSA, said, “This is a momentous day for us here at DSA. The team has been excited about this maiden long-haul flight since it was first announced in 2018, increasing TUI seats from DSA by 25% from this April.”
Boom to Bust
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the global aviation industry ground to a halt. Like many regional airports, DSA was hit hard. Passenger numbers plummeted from 1.2 million in 2019 to just 167,000 in 2020.
The airport had already made full-year operating losses of £16.2m (US$19.2m) in 2018/19, and £6.8m (US$7.6m) in 2019/20. In 2020/21 these losses reached £8.6m (US$9.7m).
The hope of a turnaround of fortunes came when Wizz Air UK (W9) announced its newest base at DSA in August 2020. A single Airbus A320 would be based at the airport with seven new services to complement its existing network of ten routes.
This would increase capacity at the airport by 150,000 seats per year.
Sadly, W9’s arrival did not end DSA’s woes. In June 2022, Wizz announced that it would close its base, accusing the airport of being ‘unable to guarantee the terms of its commercial agreement.’ DSA management meanwhile accused W9 of failing to reciprocate its commitments to the airport.
In a statement, a spokesperson for DSA said that the airport was “disappointed that Wizz Air has, without prior notice, permanently cancelled 13 summer and winter routes, effective from June 10 2022. Our priority remains on minimising the impact of the Wizz Air decision on our passengers, wherever possible.”
“Unfortunately, it appears that DSA services have been sacrificed in order to support routes at other UK airports. It is regrettable that performance by Wizz of its own commitments has not been reciprocated,” it added.
W9’s move was the final nail in the airport’s coffin. On July 15, 2022, the Peel Group announced that it would begin a strategic review into the future of commercial aviation at the airport.
In a statement, the group said, “Despite growth in passenger numbers, DSA has never achieved the critical mass required to become profitable and this fundamental issue of a shortfall in passenger numbers is exacerbated by the announcement on June 10, 2022, of the unilateral withdrawal of the Wizz Air based aircraft, leaving the Airport with only one base carrier, namely TUI.”
Despite hopes that a white knight would be found to save the airport and various pleas by local government officials, on September 26, the sad news that DSA would close was announced.
Fittingly, the airline that started it all over 17 years ago operated the final service. TUI flight TOM3547 touched down at DSA from Hurghada (HRG) on the evening of November 4. A welcoming party was on hand to greet the flight, which became very emotional. A few hours later, the Boeing 737-8K5 (G-TAWW) aircraft was positioned to Manchester (MAN) with a tribute callsign of TOM1DSA.
Steven Underwood, Peel Group CEO, has stated that the company is now working to develop a “forward-thinking strategy” for the site, working with the £1.7 billion Gateway East development adjacent to the airport “to help unlock vibrant, job-creating alternatives to ensure future growth and prosperity.”
Doncaster Sheffield now joins several other UK airports forced to close in recent years. Whether commercial flights will ever return to DSA remains to be seen.
Featured Image: The airport was rebranded as Doncaster Sheffield Airport in 2016. Photo: DSA