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Opinion: It was great when Anglia ruled the skies

PUBLISHED: 17:31 22 November 2018 | UPDATED: 17:31 22 November 2018

One of the Dakota aircraft used by Air Anglia, pictured at Norwich Airport August 1974.
 Photo: submitted

One of the Dakota aircraft used by Air Anglia, pictured at Norwich Airport August 1974. Photo: submitted

Archant © 2006

Nick Conrad reminisces about Air Anglia - and wonders if small airlines could ever return?

The last of Air Anglia's DC3s makes a farewell low-level run at Norwich Airport Photo: ArchantThe last of Air Anglia's DC3s makes a farewell low-level run at Norwich Airport Photo: Archant

On a recent trip to the Norwich Aviation Museum I was delighted by two small displays charting the history of our very own airline.

Many of you reading this will remember, or will have even flown on the white, yellow and black Air Anglia craft.

The destinations were practical rather than exotic but it is romantic to think about air travel before the big conglomerate airlines swallowed up all the minnows.

My visit was sadly timely. The eventual successor to Air Anglia, Flybe has just announced it is being buffeted in this tough financial climate and is experiencing turbulence. So, is it time, or indeed at all possible to return to smaller local airlines?

The story of Air Anglia is romantic.

Born from a merger of three small airlines in 1970, the new airline promised to connect Norwich with the rest of the UK and the continent.

Its base was ‘naturally’ Norwich Airport, and the company was backed by Norwich Union – today Aviva.

This ‘super-local’ business model is literally decades away from the current international structure of airline ownership.

Little planes zipped and whizzed across the country, always returning ‘home’ to Norfolk.

Maybe you remember the large springy seats and generous legroom of the Fokker F27 or the Handley Page Dart Herald?

Hardly the comfort we are now afforded on those sardine tins in the sky - the modern low-budget airline.

Forty years on from excited passengers peering out of windows as they soared above Norwich here was I, on tiptoes, staring into those very same windows.

Norwich Aviation Museum has acquired three old Air Anglia and Air UK planes.

Through discoloured glass I got a glimpse of the bygone world of air travel, where 
being small was often a big strength.

Aviation experts claim it would be simply impossible to finance, run and seek profit from a Norfolk-based airline now, and frankly the investment needed is eye-watering.

Aviation is the preserve of the ‘big boys’ – however, the chop and change of the industry is causing a major headache for airports of all sizes.

Air Anglia might have been small but the company aspired to corner the regional market.

The lifeblood of this fledgling airline was trafficking holidaymakers, business executives and logistics for the offshore industry.

Quickly the operation became established, and the brand Air Anglia became a good business story.

This success was sufficient enough to attract the tycoons waving the big bucks.

Forgive the timely pun…Air Anglia was ‘Born in a merger’ and sadly lost to one too.

The UK’s big regional players spotted growth and cost-saving opportunities from a new alliance, and soon our county flag carrier was flirting with national prominence.

From county to country – Air UK was born.

The big hope was that this move would improve connectivity, taking advantage of more UK airports.

In the short term it worked. A million passengers per year, 1,700 staff and the nickname the ‘Third Force’ – it was the county’s third largest scheduled carrier.

Seduced by the greater economies of scale and marketing opportunities on paper, the business presented as a good investment option for bigger airlines and venture capital groups. Guess what…cue yet another merger.

Placed on each table in the tearoom of the Norwich Aviation Museum are magazines all about flying.

As I sip tea from a thick ceramic mug, I’m immersed in a mixture of industry comment and nostalgia.

An argument is made in one trade paper for the emergence of regional airlines subsidised by money from central government.

Could this be a way to stabilise the volatility of the market and ensure longevity for our small airports?

The UK’s small airports are hit the hardest by intense competition, and this would give them a leg up.

They are important, and I love Norwich Airport.

There is a global dogfight for airlines, a rotating roster of who becomes top dog.

The recession 10 years ago hit passenger volumes leaving airlines to focus on larger airports, which have strong enough balance sheets to pay incentives. Airports are being run privately, aggressively and competing with each other.

The argument is that it wouldn’t be in the interest of a local airline, like Air Anglia, to behave like this ensuring the smaller airports viability. Also, the Heathrow debate and limited capacity in the London market has raised the prospect of much needed regional growth to soak up the demand.

For now, sadly, the re-emergence of ‘Air Anglia’ 
is a far-off dream of aviation nerds.

But thanks to the Norwich Aviation Museum we can still enjoy a little slice of the good old days.

If you go you’ll find a treasure trove of artefacts displays and, of course, planes.

I wholeheartedly recommend a trip. As for Air Anglia… maybe we are slowly returning to an age where locality matters?

Where being ‘little’ can hold big advantages.

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