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Transport / Mass transit

What is a city without an airport? On Sheffield, Doncaster and Robin Hood

Having a skewed sense of pride in your city of birth is not uncommon.  Whether you hail from Glasgow, Baltimore or Stuttgart, you’re keen to promote your home town and emphasize its positives to the world. And if you define yourself as a Glaswegian, then your own identity is based in part on the identity of Glasgow itself – so the question of whether your city is seen as an international destination or a provincial backwater can become somewhat personal.

I’m from Sheffield and have always had great pride in the place. Despite it being a medium-sized, unglamorous city with few tourist attractions, it does have two fine universities, a metro system (OK, light rail) and an airport – or these days, half an airport.

When I was growing up, Sheffield’s rivalry with Yorkshire’s other big city, Leeds, was intense. Located just 30 miles up the M1 motorway, Leeds appeared to hold all the cards – a greater population, taller buildings, a grand train station and a busy airport.  Sheffield, on the other hand, suffered from higher unemployment and greater economic stagnation.

And, to my further shame, my home town was regularly cited as Europe’s largest city without an airport.

All this seemed to change in the 1990s, when Sheffield’s new light rail system began operations and Sheffield City Airport opened. Located close to the city centre, this brand new airport had a very short runway and a tiny terminal. But the sight of sleek regional jets touching down beside the Parkway, the main arterial route into Sheffield from the M1, had me bursting with civic pride. Now, surely Sheffield could be defined as a proper European city, boasting as it did both a sizable metro system and its own airport.

The late, lamented Sheffield City Airport. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

We even outdid Leeds, I told myself gleefully, as our rival didn’t have any form of light rail, and its unimpressive (if larger) airport was miles out of town. Indeed, as discussions over its proposed light rail system stalled, Leeds was regularly identified as being Europe’s largest city with no light rail or metro. Sheffield, I believed, was now forging its own identity as a major urban player. Surely it was only a matter of time before the city’s light rail system was connected to the new airport, I thought, and could begin whisking passengers into the city centre in a matter of minutes. Could we soon have genuine bragging rights over our Yorkshire rival?

Alas, my dream was shattered. In June 2008 the cash-strapped Sheffield Council closed City Airport and sold the land for development. The official excuse was that the airport was making a loss and the runway couldn’t be extended for larger jets. But many Sheffielders were unconvinced: all airports make an initial loss, opponents pointed out, and the parkway site was virtually the only flat place for an airport in this hilliest of British cities.

Despite the protests, the closure went ahead. My home town had regained the unwanted moniker of being the largest European city without its own airport.

Or had it?


As City Airport was in its death throes, the former RAF base at Finningley, 18 miles to the east, was being rebranded as a passenger airport. Located to the south of Doncaster, Finningley wasn’t really on my radar. I knew it was a hassle to get to from Sheffield, with the initial stretch of motorway followed by a circuitous, mazy route on minor roads. Reports of people getting lost when driving to Finningley were not uncommon, and everyone knew the rush hour traffic around Doncaster could be appalling.

Despite it being branded as “Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield”, Sheffielders remained skeptical. No direct public transport link existed from Sheffield, they pointed out, and naming the airport after Robin Hood didn’t help matters as the mythical Prince of Thieves was strongly associated with Nottingham and green tights. Besides, Finningley was too far out of town to be seen as Sheffield’s airport, wasn’t it?

To make matters worse it soon became clear that the name “Doncaster Sheffield” was too long to fit on most departure boards, which meant that the name was regularly shortened to “Doncaster”. Soon it began to be universally referred to as “Doncaster Airport”, the Sheffield part of the name being dropped by all but the most pedantic. And to be fair, “Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?

I remember despairing of the marketing of DSA. For a start, Sheffield is four or five times larger than Doncaster. Shouldn’t the major city’s name have come first? To be honest, I’d have been quite happy with departure boards dropping Doncaster from the name instead.

As for Robin Hood, this was simply a nod to a recognisable name. There were far more worthy candidates to name an airport after, not least flight pioneer Amy Johnson, who lived and studied in Sheffield.

Initially, a relatively wide range of flights were offered from DSA, to places like Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels. However, Like Sheffield City Airport, it’s fortunes declined after a bright start. Passenger numbers slumped after Easyjet pulled out in 2012. By 2014, the only flights left were seasonal “bucket and spade” destinations to the Mediterranean and a range of little-known East European cities offered by the Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air. DSA was still routinely mocked by Sheffielders, many of whom still chose to fly from Manchester or Leeds. “You can’t fly anywhere from Doncaster” became another common refrain.

Ooooh, shiny. Image: author provided.

Since its nadir in 2013, however, glimmers of hope have emerged. The airport’s marketers seem to have realized that Sheffield has a certain amount of name recognition, and efforts are being made to refer to “Doncaster Sheffield” in all official communications and literature. Thankfully the name “Robin Hood” appears to have been downgraded. 

In 2016, the airline FlyBe launched new routes to seven destinations including Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Dublin, and annual passenger numbers increased from 830,000 in 2015 to a record 1,2 million in 2016. Last winter, ads for the airport, with the slogan “fly local” began to appear in Sheffield’s main train station and elsewhere. The airport also began sponsoring Sheffield United FC. 

More significantly, getting lost on the way is now a thing of the past. A new link road opened in 2016 connecting DSA to the motorway, meaning the airport is now just a 25 minute drive from Sheffield city centre, When the final stretch of the link road is completed in 2018, the travel time could be closer to 20 minutes, which is better than many other comparable city-to-airport journey times, including Leeds city centre to Leeds-Bradford Airport.

I’ve flown into the airport a few times now and do now get the feeling of being almost home when stepping off the plane. For me, however, DSA will never achieve full status as Sheffield’s airport until you can jump on a bus to and from the city centre. Currently, public transport users in Sheffield must take a train to Doncaster – there’s only one 25 minute “fast” train per hour – before switching to a thrice-hourly bus service for the 20-minute onward airport journey. With hourly trains running direct from Sheffield to Manchester Airport, which offers low fare carriers and destinations galore, it’s little wonder that DSA is still seen as a something of a niche market.

Some Sheffielders still cling to the belief that the city “doesn’t have an airport” and “Doncaster doesn’t count”. And to be honest, there’s no way the light rail will link it to the city in my lifetime. However, even though I commonly refer to it as “Doncaster” these days, there’s no doubt that DSA is gradually becoming better known as Sheffield’s airport and my civic pride is slowly being restored. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take it.
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