MIAMI – Today in Aviation Air Wales (6G), the regional scheduled carrier based at Cardiff Airport (CWL) was consigned to the history books in 2006.
The airline can trace its history back to November 1999, after being founded by Swansea-based property tycoon Roy Thomas. Initially based at the little-known airfield of Pembery in West Wales, operations were due to commence on March 26, 2000, using two 19-seat Dornier 228.
However, flights linking the airport to Haverfordwest-Cardiff-London (Stansted) were quickly shelved, as the owner realized that Pembery was not a suitable facility for the new operation.
The Red Dragon Takes Off
Instead, flights commenced from Cardiff to Cork and Manchester in Spring 2001. The Cork rotation proved popular, carrying 12,000 passengers in the first six months. However, the Manchester flight failed to live up to expectations and was dropped in August that year.
Roy Thomas had big expansion plans for Air Wales. In March 2001 he announced the airline hoped to serve New York (EWR) from Cardiff in the near future. Caernarfon and Haverfordwest were also put forward as focus cities to create a “pan-Wales” air service.
These plans never took off, but routes from Cardiff and Swansea were later launched to Dublin, Jersey, and Belfast City. The carrier also planned flights to Edinburgh and Glasgow starting on August 12, 2002. However, these were quickly shelved after low-cost carrier bmibaby announced they would be opening a base at Cardiff in Autumn 2002.
In November 2002, Mr. Thomas took control of Swansea Airport and decided to move the airline’s headquarters here. Speaking to the BBC at the time, Thomas said: “The acquisition of Swansea Airport is of vital strategic importance to Air Wales. It provides Air Wales with an ideal operating base from which to continue developing what is Wales’ only airline.”
Flights continued from Cardiff with the airline offering 220 scheduled flights per week on a network covering eight destinations from its two bases.
In early 2002 Air Wales hit the headlines when they announced they were looking for Flight Attendants who were 5’ 2” or smaller to work on their Dornier 228 turboprops. Despite not legally needing crew, as the aircraft only had 19-seats, seven were hired on March 5, 2002, to ‘improve the customer experience onboard.’
To cope with future expansion Air Wales acquired four 48-seat ATR-42s and two 19-seat Beech 1900Ds in 2003. Shortly afterward, management decided to focus its fleet around the larger ATR and would go on to operate five of the type: G-WLSH, G-KNNY, G-TAWE, G-SSEA, and G-CDFF.
The biggest coup for the airline was the introduction of a direct air link between Wales and London City in April 2003, the first for over 35 years. Sadly it failed to live up to expectations and was quietly dropped in October 2004.
Despite starting out at Cardiff as rivals, on March 28, 2004, Air Wales entered into a strategic partnership with bmibaby. Flights to Cork, Glasgow (PIK), Jersey, and later Paris (CDG) were covered by the agreement.
Sadly, passenger numbers at Swansea were failing to reach expected levels. On October 29, 2004, Air Wales terminated its flights to London City, Dublin, Jersey, and Amsterdam and moved its operational base back to Cardiff.
An Air Wales spokesman said at the time: “Despite the huge levels of investment injected into the infrastructure at Swansea Airport and the subsidizing of flights by airline and airport owner Roy Thomas, the number of passengers using Air Wales at Swansea Airport does not justify the continued operation of the airline from Swansea.
Throughout the carrier’s chequered history, numerous routes were launched with varying degrees of success. In late 2003 to early 2004 the carrier expanded its operations by 34%.
Routes from the Welsh capital to Aberdeen, Liverpool, Newcastle and Plymouth were added at this time. However, the Liverpool flight was dropped after just six weeks. The same fate befell the new twice-daily Brussels service, launched in January 2004 and terminated in April. In late 2003 a new route from Galway to Glasgow (PIK) was announced. But the flight was pulled before it even got off the ground. In August 2004 Air Wales revealed it would begin serving Norwich to Dublin and Cardiff.
In February 2006 all flights from Plymouth and routes to Dublin, Belfast and Cork were all cut from the network due to “underperformance”.
The airline had believed that expansion would solve its growing financial issues. Sadly it had the opposite effect. Air Wales’ mismatched network increased its cost base. Any routes which were underperforming were dropped before they had chance to mature. Its small fleet could not cope with the increased demand and there was no spare capacity should any technical issues arise. Delays and cancellations were commonplace, leading to growing customer dissatisfaction.
In January 2006 the Welsh government established a route development fund, with Air Wales’ re-introduced Cardiff to Brussels link, becoming the first beneficiary of the £4M fund.
The airline had also announced new flights from Cardiff to Paris (BVA); the re-introduction of a link to Belfast (City) and service from Jersey, Manchester, and Waterford to Rennes in northwest France. Another new route was also introduced connecting Cork-Cardiff-Exeter and Newquay.
Despite a positive outlook in March 2006, Air Wales announced that it was to end all scheduled operations, focusing instead on charter and freight flights. In a statement, Air Wales said it was becoming “increasingly impossible for independent regional airlines such as Air Wales to operate profitably without substantial subsidy.”
“Increased costs” and “high competition” from larger low-cost airlines namely bmibaby, with whom the airline had ended their franchise agreement within December 2005, were blamed for the move. Air Wales chairman Roy Thomas said they had made the decision “with sadness and regret.”
Charter and freight flights never materialized and on April 23, 2006, the airline ceased all operations with the loss of 80 jobs.
Roy Thomas’ dream of creating a new carrier for Wales had failed. Over expansion, the wrong choice of airports, and growing competition meant that the Red Dragon became another UK airline to fail prematurely.
Featured image: Air Wales launched numerous new routes during its tenure as Wales’ flag carrier. However many of these were often dropped without having the chance to mature. Photo: Gary Watt (GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html or GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html), via Wikimedia Commons