Flights of Fancy?

There’s certainly plenty up in the air where I live – flimsy; single-engine light aircraft, limping in and out of the local aerodrome; the occasional business jet, a few helicopters and then the traffic from the local NATO airbase, a few jet fighters, but mostly transport aircraft and AWACS – those huge airborne warning planes that carry a massive radar disc on the back that looks like a giant Frisbee; cum flying saucer – Plenty of planes up there, but nothing that will fly me back to London – no local hub airport with low cost carriers. No folks, I live in that part of France where no one flies to.

Sure, if I make the effort and drive for a couple of hours, I can get to an airport with cheap and « direct » UK flights, but at the outset, when every town in France was scrambling to get UK carriers to use their local landing strip, when hordes of second-home-owning Brits would jet over to France for the weekend, the whole point was that your local airport was (or is) local. I mean you literally step off the plane and you are home – just a few minutes’ drive, not two or three hours.

So, last week, reading our local paper « Le Berry Républican » – Oh Mon Dieu – our local « hub » airport in Chateauroux, will be opening up a route to London from April 29th onwards.

Chateauroux, barely 45 minutes drive for my own front door, and free parking for passenger cars – GREAT, where is the snag? Even the 49€ cost of a single ticket sound eminently reasonable.

Ah, I’ve found the snag – London is actually Southend – an east coast seaside resort (that is more on Thames than « on sea) roughly fifty miles from London – but there is a good train service into the capital from Southend …

And now I am on the websites for Chateauroux and Southend airports – the former mentions the forthcoming, but nothing about the carrier, and the latter, Southend says nothing about the opening of the new route.

Yes, yet another air route to France and did we really need it?

I blame it all on the recently-deceased Peter Mayle (RIP), he who penned « A year in Provence » – the early 90’s epic about the idyllic life of an ex-pat in the Provençal countryside – wine, sunshine and the simple life in rural France – and the Brits lapped it up and they bought property in Provence and with the property boom, other Brits wanting a slice of the good French life had to move a little above Provence, into the Luberon and the Drôme. The Brits wanted fast, cheap and cheerful ways to get to their second homes. In the early 2000s local « hub » airports in areas popular with the Brits were tripping over themselves to entice the low cost carriers in.

Map shows hub airports in France for Brits. Red dots are all year round services. Purple dots are either seasonal services or hubs operatint twice weekly flights to s single UK airport – normally Stanstead. 

In the « noughties » it was all chicken and egg. What came first? The Brits or the cheap flights? As property prices soured in the south the Brits moved northwards, up through the Rhone valley, into the centre of France, right up to Limoges, into the Auvergne, up into the Loire Valley , but this was only possible because low cost carriers started flying to these places.

And why did the Brits come and what did they do when they got here – Second home-owners aside, the business model was a simple one. Sell your house in big city Britain and with the proceeds buy a château in the middle of nowhere for next to nothing, restore it and run a Bed and Breakfast business via the Internet – Oh lord there were so many of these places, and he moves to France were such that even the BBC ran property programmes about realising your « French dream. »

Now we are on the verge of Brexit. In a couple of years, unless something is negotiated , a lot of UK based low cost carriers might be losing their easy and automatic rights the French airspace, and for all those « jetting » Brits, free, unhindered access to France might be just a little bit more difficult, and it is against the backdrop of Brexit that my local airport in Chateauroux (the local airport capable of taking airliners) is launching routes to the UK. Why ? Why did no one at Chateauroux think of doing this 20 years ago ?

So a few words on Chateauroux airport. Until General de Gaulle announced that France was leaving NATO, Chateauroux airport was almost the largest US airbase in Europe – the main logistical Platform for US forces based in Western Europe – a kind of historical anomaly – a massive US airbase in a small provincial French town that lasted from 1949 to 1967. In those golden years for Chateauroux, it was the only US Air force base in France, with several thousand US personnel and for local kids at the time, dirct access to comic books and Rock and Roll records. Outside of Paris, Chateauroux, in the middle of the middle of nowhere, was the only place in France to get American culture. Even Parisians would drive the 250 miles or so to get the latest US records, playing on the juke-boxes of the bars in Chateauroux, but unavailable in Paris.

Nowadays, Chateauroux is a massive civilian and military logistic platform handing overflow flights from all French airports – all loads but no passengers, but so many aircraft parked up on the apron. Chateauroux might play host to a new Amazon logistic base in France, and a few years ago, Chinese companies bought vast tracts of disused agricultural land around the airport ; but in spite of the business possibilities, I am still wondering why our local airport as finally jumped on the ex-pat bandwagon, 20 years too late .

In the current state of plat there are around 200,000 UK résidents in France and that boost to 500,000 with second home owners. There are over 35 hub airports with low cost carriers. There is suremy not enough ex-pat or even tourist demand to justify the low cost offer . Something has to give. We might be looking at low cost cariers pulling out of some airports or an axing of some lines.

Looming Brexit and falling demand . Sure, in the late 90s and early 2000s, low cost carriers and regional airports opened up vast tracts if France like the railroads opened up vast tracts of America – you could finally go places at affordable prices, but as going anywhere is concerned, just because you can get there, is that necessarily the place you want to go ?