ON July 26, Newcastle International Airport celebrates its 75th anniversary. The region’s biggest airport has grown from a grass airstrip and a few huts in 1935, to the modern and dynamic gateway it is today, as Iain Laing reports.
Package holidays first came to the market in the 1950s with “exotic” trips to the Isle of Man, Isle of Wight and Channel Islands becoming available. By 1954, scheduled services totalled 35 per week with passenger numbers reaching 5,500 a year.
A new North East Regional Airport Committee was formed in April 1963, paving the way for major development. The new committee, comprising the local authorities of Newcastle, Gateshead, South Shields, Northumberland, Durham, Tynemouth and Sunderland, shifted the fundamental nature of the airport, making it a springboard for regional development. Construction of a new terminal followed and was completed in 1966. It was officially opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson the following year. The 1960s witnessed a boom in foreign sunshine holidays, especially to Spain.
Within six years, annual passenger figures had doubled to 700,000. The growth continued in the 1970s when the arrival of jet aircraft triggered an expansion in the package holiday market. The first wide-bodied jumbo jet landed in Newcastle from America with a party of 380 people aboard.
In 1978, the Government designated Newcastle Airport Category B status which meant it became a regional international airport with a mandate to provide short and medium-haul scheduled international services.
By November that year, a visionary expansion plan had been drawn up, with an £8m 4,000sq m terminal expansion as its centrepiece featuring a new passenger pier and airside departure lounge.
The airport reached the milestone of one million passengers per year in 1980 when the expansion was completed, delivering improved check-in, lounges, catering and duty-free facilities. A new parallel taxiway was constructed to speed aircraft turnaround times and simplify ground manoeuvres. Jim Denyer finally retired in 1989 and his role was filled by Trevor Went.
Under Mr Went’s stewardship, the airport placed considerable emphasis on expanding its network of scheduled routes. By the end of the decade, passenger numbers had reached 1.6million a year.
In 1991, Nexus constructed an extension to the Metro system linking Newcastle Airport to the city and beyond, dramatically improving rail access to the airport. While some airports in the Midlands and South of England recorded traffic losses of more than 20% in the wake of the Gulf War and recession at home, Newcastle Airport was busy recording an impressive rise in traffic to a new record of 1.67million passengers per year during the early 1990s.
While the number of passengers on both domestic and international scheduled routes had continued to show steady growth, the increase in charter holiday traffic was astounding, up 43% in 1992/93 compared with the previous year. By 1993, passenger figures had hit two million. An extended and improved terminal building was opened on May 26, 1994, by the Princess Royal.
By the start of the new century, passenger figures had reached 3 million per year. A major £27m terminal extension to double the size of the check-in hall was officially opened by Prime Minister Tony Blair in October of that year. On May 4, 2001, the seven local authority shareholders – Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, Sunderland and South Tyneside – sold 49% of the shares in the company to Copenhagen Airport, paving the way for an unprecedented period of growth and development which would transform Newcastle into one of Europe’s most successful regional airports.