DRIVING past Prestwick Airport always evokes memories, including distant ones of visits to see people off on transatlantic flights in decades past and thoughts of numerous European trips which began from there.

It is always a little sad to reflect on the airport’s current passenger numbers, relative to where they were even relatively recently when Prestwick was enjoying something of a revival from the boom in budget airline flights.

In the first decade of the new millennium, for example, there were flights from Prestwick to many overseas destinations in Europe, on scheduled and charter services, as well as regular flights to London. Annual passenger numbers hit 2.5 million in 2005, with the total in each year between 2004 and 2008 being more than two million.

And you would imagine many people using the airport these days, or passing by it, would not know or might even find it hard to imagine that it was in decades gone by the only airport in Scotland offering transatlantic flights.

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However, while the airport seems a long way from its heyday, it remains a very important part of the Ayrshire and broader Scottish economy.

This is a simple fact which seems at times to be lost on many. It certainly appears to have escaped those who have for years carped on about some of the airport’s troubles, with what has if you scratch beneath the surface looked a whole lot like politically motivated delight.

The fact that the airport has since 2013 been in Scottish Government ownership has seen this crucial asset become a target for opponents of the SNP.

This petty point-scoring has been irritating in the extreme, not just in terms of its utterly tiresome tone and degree of repetition of ideological dogma but also crucially because those opposing state support for, or even continuation of, (Glasgow) Prestwick Airport seem to have scant regard for the associated employment. The last thing the airport and Scottish economy need is for the asset to serve as a political football.

Other Scottish airports have, amid the carping from the politically motivated and others who appear to become agitated by the concept of state ownership, expressed more valid points about the importance of the Scottish Government ensuring it does not behave in a way with Prestwick that distorts competition.

However, these lobbying efforts have at times appeared a bit noisy, given there has been absolutely no sign that Scottish Government ownership was ever going to result in the other airports in Scotland’s central belt being faced with unfair competition from a state-owned entity.

You often get the impression that state ownership of Prestwick, which has been and remains crucial to this vital asset until a new owner can be found, may even if anything have held Prestwick back from competing as robustly as it might have been able to do if it were still in the private sector. The Scottish Government appears, if anything, to have gone out of its way to ensure that it is not skewing the level playing field in Prestwick’s favour.

The airport at Prestwick, which has a direct rail link to Glasgow city centre, employs more than 300 people. It says it supports a further 1,700 jobs through its supplier network, and that it currently contributes £61.6 million annually to the Scottish economy. And it notes that more than 4,500 jobs in total are supported by the airport and the surrounding Prestwick aerospace cluster.

This, you would hope, might give some of the airport’s politically or ideologically motivated detractors some food for thought. Sadly, such critics appear not to be moved by these big employment numbers.

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Whatever the case, it was interesting this week that the cat seemed to have got many of the detractors’ tongues after the airport’s latest financial results.

In years when the airport was making big losses, even though the Scottish Government’s backing of what is a crucial strategic asset was not only ensuring the airfield’s future but also helping support jobs, the results tended to be greeted noisily by those who would claim public money was being wasted.

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However, the airport has now reported profits for three consecutive financial years.

For the year to March 31, 2022, the accounts of TS Prestwick Holdco Ltd published this week show that the airport made pre-tax profits of £1.21 million. Turnover was £35m, nearly double the level of £18.9m in the prior financial year.

In the 12 months to March 31, 2021, the company made a pre-tax profit of £12.79m. However, this included a £5.36m exceptional gain arising from a reversal of previous impairment charges that took into account the airport’s improving performance, the outlook for its future, and clarification of the Covid-19 impact. It also included an £8.265m gain on revaluation of investment properties.

The gain on revaluation of investment properties in the year to March 2022 was £425,000.

For the year to March 2020, TS Prestwick Holdco recorded a pre-tax profit of £5.45m, having made a loss of £3.85m in the prior 12 months.

Of course, challenges remain for Prestwick, which has loans totalling £43.4m from Transport Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Ministers. Interest on these loans amounted to £1.078m in the year to March.

The airport has not received any loans or additional funding from the Scottish Government for more than three years – since it has been profitable.

Passenger numbers in the year to March were, at 118,000, sharply higher than the figure of 47,000 for the prior 12 months and are expected to rise further in the current financial year. However, the airport noted that they were, in the 2021/22 financial year, less than 20% of pre-pandemic levels.

There are now an average of 36 flights per day from Prestwick during the peak summer months, a spokesman for the airport noted this week. This drops to around 15 to 25 during the winter months. Excluding private charters, Ryanair is the only airline currently operating from the airport, the spokesman observed.

In spite of Prestwick’s much-reduced passenger numbers, the results and an accompanying statement from the airport this week provided plenty of room for optimism about the future.

The airport said: “It is the fifth consecutive year of improving financial results and the third year in a row of making a profit – despite continuing economic challenges the airport proved again its strength in delivering diverse services.”

Chief executive Ian Forgie said: “With the full support of the Scottish Government, the new board is focused now on building Prestwick’s core strengths and investing for the future.

“Our masterplan is looking afresh at growth opportunities in cargo, expanding aircraft maintenance and training facilities, the Spaceport programme and delivering our sustainability strategy ambitions.”

Hopefully, the right kind of exciting times are in store for the airport.

In the meantime, it is great to see the airport at Prestwick in the black for three consecutive years. And the underlying performance in the year to March 2022 looks commendable, given the airport had to deal with a very challenging period indeed for the aviation sector amid the coronavirus pandemic.

You get the impression that this will stick in the craw for some of the critics of the Scottish Government’s intervention to save Prestwick. This would be a curious situation if it were the case, given much of the whining has been about a supposed waste of public money.

So you would think these people would be delighted to have seen Prestwick recording a third consecutive annual profit.

Praise, however, appeared somewhat thin on the ground. Perhaps the silence from many quarters from which there was previously noise spoke volumes.